Rock of Ages

Sunday, November 26, 2006 1:24 PM

From John de Clef Piñeiro, via Mark Greenfest, an interesting article in today’s New York Times!

Rock of Ages

by Jeff Leeds

AT 52, Martha Stinson is not quite sure where to turn when it comes to new music. The local Tower Records in Nashville, where Mrs. Stinson is an owner of a general contracting company, is going out of business, and she never did figure out how to load music onto the digital-music player she bought a couple of years ago.

But she may soon receive an overture from a source not known for its musical savvy:  AARP. She is the kind of consumer that the association is targeting with a sweeping marketing campaign that it hopes will entice millions of new members, as the first kids weaned on rock ’n’ roll turn gray.

And if Mrs. Stinson is any indication, the group faces an uphill battle. She has repeatedly thrown out AARP membership solicitations, after all. “It’s going to be tough,” to market to those like her, she said. “Our generation has always been a little revolutionary. We feel like we’re in middle age. Were out bike riding, running businesses. Our kids are fully grown, and we’re kind of footloose and fancy free.”

Older consumers (along with children) represent one of the few reliable markets in the music business these days, and AARP, the organization for older Americans, is keen to capitalize on that. On Tuesday the group announced that for the first time it will sponsor a national concert tour, by Tony Bennett. And that’s just a start. Other sponsorships will follow, and from those, AARP hopes, many new members. With plans in the works for an alliance with a major retail chain, a Web-based music recommendation service with Pandora and even a music blog, AARP is looking to graduate from advocate of the shuffleboard set to the ranks of cultural concierge.

“I hope that we make this thing so relevant and so cool,” said Tena Clark, a music consultant helping to devise the group’s marketing strategy. “I would hope that one day in the future that my 20-year-old daughter would want to borrow my AARP card to get into a concert just like she tries to borrow her sister’s I.D.”

[ Photo: Photo illustration by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times ]

Consumers like Ms. Stinson may not be the only skeptics however. For musicians, a deal with AARP is a different matter than a deal with a hip coffee house or a fashion retailer. No matter how hard the group may try to change its image — even with the likes of Paul McCartney and Susan Sarandon on the cover of its magazine — some people still associate it with the Saturday-night-bingo set. And many musicians may want to keep their distance, even if it means sacrificing enormous sales.

“The problem is going to be getting the artists to allow, next to their name, those four feared initials,” said Jonny Podell, the longtime talent agent who books appearances for artists including the Allman Brothers Band, Alice Cooper and Peter Gabriel. “I’m the agent for half a dozen acts they’re going to want,” Mr. Podell said, and “short of saying, ‘In addition to your normal fee we’re giving you $1 million in cash,’ I don’t think they’d have one taker.” For the artists, he said, “It’s about not admitting they’re old.” For his part Mr. Podell, who is 60, said he has been receiving AARP entreaties for years, and each time “I drop it like a hot potato.”

Jan Reisen, who along with her partner Peter Kooiker runs the Web site, said she plans to join AARP at some point to take advantage of financial benefits like discounts on insurance, rental cars and hotels. But as for recommending albums, “If I want to know about cool music, I’ll ask my 22-year-old.”

Whether AARP succeeds in its new venture, it’s on to something significant. Like Madison Avenue it is responding to the marketing challenge posed by the huge but fickle post-war generation, which for the last 60 years has driven cultural trends from hula hoops to the S.U.V. Consumers over 50 used to make marketers’ eyes glaze over. The assumption was that older buyers’ spending habits had solidified and their earning power had peaked. No longer.

Now they control too much disposable income — and live too long — to be ignored. And nowhere is the shift in attitudes more pronounced than in the beleaguered pop music business, which desperately needs their money (who do you think is buying all those $750 Barbra Streisand tickets?) and shares their aversion to illicit music downloads.

The graying of the music market crept up on America. Even during the ascent of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys in the late 1990s, when teen sensations were getting all the attention, consumers 45 and older were the industry’s biggest market, according to survey data compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America. The gap has only widened since then. Last year fans 45 and older accounted for 25.5 percent of sales, while older teenagers (a group more prone to music piracy) represented less than 12 percent. So it’s little wonder that Rod Stewart’s raspy remakes of pop standards emerged as a franchise, or that Bob Dylan in September captured the No. 1 spot on the Billboard chart for the first time in 30 years.

[ Photo: James Taylor played at an AARP event in 2004. CreditHiroyuki Ito for The New York Times ]

The trick is that conventional marketing techniques don’t always work with this group (if they work with anyone anymore). Older listeners don’t have much interest in traditional commercial radio, which targets children and young adults, as do TV channels like VH1 and MTV. And they don’t spend much time in traditional record stores.

So labels, publicists and marketers have had to learn new tricks to reach them. Older acts show up not on MTV’s “TRL” (Total Request Live) but on morning shows like “Today,” and hawk their wares in infomercials and TV mail-order ads. Instead of seeking Top 40 radio airplay, they look to National Public Radio and satellite radio. And to entice more casual consumers, artists now regularly guarantee exclusive recordings to mass retailers like Target or high-end chains that cater to grown-ups.

While Starbucks is the most prominent example, other chains are finding their own niche. James Taylor struck platinum with a CD that was initially sold only in Hallmark stores. Nordstrom has introduced music to its offerings, starting with a previously out-of-print Marvin Gaye release and an exclusive CD from the jazz-tinged singer-songwriter Jamie Cullum.

But perhaps the most surprising results have been online, where the over-50 set accounted for almost 24 percent of the industry’s Internet sales, according to NPD Group, a market-research company.

While these consumers didn’t grow up with the Internet, they have grown comfortable with using it, at least to order CDs if not download music in digital form. All of that helps account for why’s recent Top 10 included Mr. Bennett’s hit “Duets: An American Classic” CD, the new collaboration from J. J. Cale and Eric Clapton, and holiday albums from James Taylor and Bette Midler, while over at iTunes, the best sellers were rap hits from the Game, Akon and the pop-punk band Plus-44.

Overall, marketers say, older consumers need to be made comfortable. So House of Blues, the concert promoter, found that it could boost ticket sales for older artists by offering pre-show dinners or wine tastings. Sometimes they added seating in clubs that had required fans to stand.

[ Photo: Tony Bennett's national tour will be sponsored by the AARP. CreditPeter Kramer/Getty Images ]

AARP is heeding such lessons by developing the machinery of modern tastemaking. That means bulking up its Web site with music offerings, licensing the Pandora online radio and recommendation service, and negotiating for shelf space at a major retail chain, which would carry exclusive versions of certain CDs with discounts to AARP members. And of course it will advertise at Mr. Bennett’s concerts and perhaps sign up new members there too.

Thanks in part to Target and Starbucks, his “Duets” album has racked up the biggest sales of his career (almost 650,000 copies in its first seven weeks). Mr. Bennett’s son and manager, Danny Bennett, said the album is succeeding because it appeals not to older buyers specifically, but to a wide swatch of the audience. And that multi-generational appeal, the younger Mr. Bennett said, is what makes his father a perfect ally for AARP. “It’s not a matter of ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.’ It’s ‘Let’s stay healthy so we can rock.’ Tony’s the poster child for AARP. He’s 80 years old. He’s young at heart.”

AARP seems intent on a more generation-specific approach, putting its stamp on albums individually chosen for older consumers.

As for the wary artists, in an era when record labels are cutting back on marketing expenses, AARP, with about 37 million members, could be a great, rich friend to have. The message is not lost on the labels. Jay Krugman, senior vice president for marketing at Columbia Records (which released Mr. Bennett’s CD) calls the group “like the golden chalice.”

Elton John performed at the association’s “Life @50+” convention in Anaheim, Calif., last month; officials said they have booked Rod Stewart and Earth, Wind & Fire for next year. James Taylor played two years ago, and the group’s magazine has named him as one of the hottest people over 50. (He was listed under the “babelicious baldies” category.)

His manager, Gary Borman, acknowledges that for artists who still compete for radio airplay and television exposure, “their reputation could be somewhat tainted” by an AARP affiliation. “On the other hand, for many, many of these artists, they’re no longer playing that radio and record game and they just want to serve their fans and keep them coming back.”

“Our generation,” he concluded, “as much as we were once intuitive discoverers of music, we have lost that intuition. And now we need to be spoon fed.”