What if they started making albums in a different way? What if the record company came to you, the buyer, and asked what songs you wanted from an artist?
Well, it's happened.
QVC, the West Chester, Pa.-based television shopping channel, is currently marketing a two-CD collection of love songs recorded by '70s pop icon Kenny Rogers that originated just that way. In August, QVC asked viewers to send a postcard naming their three favorite romantic songs. Almost 10,000 people responded.
The result is Mr. Rogers' "Vote for Love," the first release by the QVC recording label onQ Music. Included in the 30-song collection are such chestnuts as "It Had to Be You," "I Will Always Love You," "You Are So Beautiful," "Crazy," "Unforgettable," and Mr. Rogers' own "Lady," which QVC says was the top vote-getter.
"Vote" has sold 65,000 copies since its Jan. 2 release -- 45,000 in the first week. The collection is available only through the shopping network, which disqualifies it from inclusion on the Billboard charts. (onQ Music is negotiating a distribution deal to get "Vote" into retail outlets.) However, SoundScan, the retail-monitoring service that crunches numbers for the trade journal, said "Vote" would have ranked 63d on last week's Billboard 200 album-sales chart, 31 slots ahead of Michael Jackson's "HIStory."
The success of the unorthodox release hasn't gone unnoticed in the industry. Some believe the ultra-researched project profanes the creative process -- sort of like an artist who agrees to do a painting in colors that match the buyer's sofa. But others find it refreshing to have fans speak for themselves. And, of course, there are those sales figures.
"Producers and artists are calling us," says Rob Berman, director of new business development for QVC, whose second onQ recording is a collection of George Burns comedy sketches. "We're talking to several major labels about joint projects with their artists," he said, but declined to give names.
"This could turn out to be a million-dollar project for Kenny," said Ken Kragen, Mr. Rogers' longtime manager. His client gets a percentage of sales revenue and is paid "a high royalty rate" for his four compositions on "Vote," said Mr. Kragen.
"They're talking about an infomercial for it," he added, "and we're already getting tremendous interest from overseas."
The onetime country kingpin, who has done booming concert business in recent years despite lack of a record deal, recently signed with a new Nashville label, Magnatone. A second album hasn't been discussed with QVC, but Mr. Kragen hopes Magnatone would permit a similarly researched onQ Christmas CD.
Marketing records on TV isn't new. The airwaves are cluttered with pitches for mail-order-only releases by Slim Whitman, Ray Stevens and others.
But the you-tell-us-what-you-want concept was unheard-of when Artie Mogul, a retired record company executive who signed Mr. Rogers to his first deal years ago, approached QVC.
QVC looked at Recording Industry Association of America figures for 1994, and found that nearly 20 percent of sales in the $12 billion recorded-music industry came from direct marketing via record clubs, catalogs and TV. That percentage increased significantly last year.
Members of Mr. Rogers' core audience -- which Mr. Kragen describes as women in their 40s and 50s -- are often uncomfortable in music stores, Mr. Berman says.
"They're hesitant to go into record stores because they cater to the younger crowd," he said. "Many people are intimidated going in and asking for the type of music they were looking for."
So QVC decided the Mr. Rogers project was worth a try. After on-air appeals for song suggestions -- QVC reaches about 50 million homes -- Mr. Rogers was dispatched to the studio.
Though he liked the idea, said Mr. Kragen, the singer had a few concerns. His touring schedule left him only a few weeks to record 30 songs, the equivalent of three albums. And he worried that fans would vote for "I Am Woman," "My Boyfriend's Back," or another song that was inappropriate for him or wasn't in his vocal range.
"It turned out to be a snap," said Mr. Kragen.
So, will fan-generated records become onQ's specialty?
Mr. Berman expects a few more, but he doubts he'll find many artists who combine Mr. Rogers' appeal to QVC viewers and his eagerness to help market the music directly from the Pennsylvania studios.
"Kenny was the perfect choice for this," said Mr. Berman.