The late Ella Fitzgerald hits the Billboard album chart for the first time in 38 years this week with her "new" CD, Love Letters From Ella. Not only that, it's her highest-charting album since 1963. The CD consists of 10 previously unreleased tracks recorded in the '70s and '80s, many of them posthumously overdubbed. Since she's one of the two or three greatest jazz vocalists of all time, even her rejects are pretty swell. But it's certainly not on par with her classic '50s and '60s albums, and it leans heavily towards ballads and midtempo tunes rather than the dynamic scat-fests she's best known for.
So why does anyone care?
It's not the content of the album that's getting customers to the cash register, or even necessarily the name on the cover. It's the record label behind it. Starbucks' Hear Music label has a knack for getting people excited about music they normally might not care about.
Fitzgerald was a popular concert draw throughout her career, but she stopped being a big record seller over four decades ago. She put out a steady stream of studio and live albums throughout the '70s and '80s (her last studio album was cut in 1989) for her manager's label, Pablo, but the albums never sold much beyond her core of fans. It's not just that her type of jazz was increasingly uncommercial in the wake of newer artists like Weather Report and Herbie Hancock. It's that being on an independent label without much marketing muscle, it was harder to get her music out to a wider audience.
Hear Music is able to make that connection, even in a dwindling market for CDs. This is the label that, a couple of years ago, found a tape of Ray Charles in concert from the mid '70s (not exactly a high point in his career, either), overdubbed the Count Basie Orchestra (minus the Count, who'd died over 20 years earlier) on top of it, and somehow convinced so many buyers of its worth that it became a Top 30 hit. There are plenty of "real" Ray Charles CDs from the '70s out there, same as with Ella, that are still languishing in music store racks across the country. But they'd have to be on display in Starbucks for anyone to notice them.
In much the same fashion, Paul McCartney's Memory Almost Full was one of the most talked-about new releases of the year. A large amount of that hype came from its mere presence on Hear Music, as opposed to a traditional label. Pretty amazing considering that, when you got down to brass tacks, it was just another solo record by a guy whose best music was made 40 years ago.
It's refreshing to see Hear Music's hype machine gear up for artists like Ella, Brother Ray and Paul, all of whom would be scorned by the major record labels because they're not 20 and they don't look good in skimpy clothing. The music sells because Starbucks, and its record label, are selling more than just coffee and music. They're selling a lifestyle, and CDs like Ella's are a huge part of that. They know their audience and how to market to it.
The major labels used to know how to do it, too. As far back as the early '70s, the mighty Warner Bros. label adopted as its slogan "The Man Can't Bust Our Music." It touched an anti-establishment nerve, even though Warner Bros. sorta WAS "The Man," inasmuch as it was a huge corporation. No matter. They knew their audience and the right things to say to it.
During the '90s, the majors grew increasingly teen-oriented, and when boy band-mania hit at the end of the decade, any pretense of catering to an adult audience was scrapped. The labels were selling a lifestyle -- the teen fangirl lifestyle. For a while, it worked. The majors knew how to promote their acts to the intended audience and squeeze maximum bucks out of it. The only problem is, they're still trying to sell variations of the same lifestyle in 2007, while the real teenage lifestyle no longer includes buying music.
There's gold in them thar over-the-hills. Hear Music is going where the money is, towards an older, more affluent demographic that may not go CD shopping anymore, but is happy to pick up a disc or two for $15 along with a latté. The major labels continue to mine for fools' gold in the teenage wasteland that doesn't buy CDs anymore and isn't making up for it with penny-ante ringtone sales. It's time for them to wake up and smell the coffee -- or the mochaccino.