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Commercials raise musicians' profiles

Who needs radio? Ads provide big boost

Michael McDonald

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Michael McDonald

LOS ANGELES, California (Hollywood Reporter) -- Musician and songwriter Michael McDonald has had a long and successful career as a solo artist and member of the Doobie Brothers. But sales and visibility of his latest album, "Motown," have been helped along more by an MCI commercial than by traditional radio airplay.

The silver-haired crooner with the soulful voice is featured in a current TV campaign that promotes MCI's Neighborhood calling plan but looks like a music video, creating a win-win situation for both parties, observers said.

The deal illustrates how managers and label executives are finding new and creative ways to promote albums amidst a global slump in recorded music sales. But it also signals a growing interest by marketers to use entertainment to brand themselves and stand out.

"The media weight of an MCI is much more than a label could give Michael McDonald," said Joel Hoffner of Nashville-based Vector Management, which represents McDonald. "That's really the cornerstone of the marketing plan."

Sales have also been spurred by McDonald being featured on TV shopping channel QVC last month. McDonald did two specially taped segments for the country's top shopping channel from Chicago, where he was doing a concert, and created an exclusive bonus album for shoppers who buy "Motown" on QVC.

There was label-sponsored TV advertising at the launch of the album in June, and "Motown" did well at release. But radio was a tough nut to crack outside of McDonald's core domain of smooth jazz and adult contemporary stations, and the album fell off the sales charts after several weeks.

After the first MCI spot broke September 8, though, interest in the album saw an immediate uptick. As of this week, "Motown" stands at No. 33 on the Billboard 200, up from No. 37 the previous week.

"When you take a voice and a personality like Michael McDonald's and you put it on television, it reintroduced Mike to a lot of people and introduced him to others for the first time," Hoffner said.

'This is what I want for my artist'

The spots using the songs "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" feature McDonald performing and talking about staying in touch with his daughter while on the road. His name and the name of his album are tagged in the corner of the screen for part of the commercial, similar to the way music videos are credited on Viacom Inc.'s VH1 and MTV cable networks.

Team McDonald weren't the only ones to appreciate the success of the campaign. Kevin McKiernan of Creative License, the music licensing firm that helped put the two sides together along with MCI's ad agency, said his phone has been ringing off the hook.

"We've been inundated with calls from the record companies since this happened," McKiernan said. "I have top executives calling me saying, 'This is what I want for my artist.' It increased record sales over 200 percent."

Many labels and managers these days are willing to do deals that don't provide an enormous amount of compensation up front if they feel that the arrangement will result in a significant increase in sales and give a music release legs.

Although McKiernan declined to discuss specifics of the McDonald deal, he stresses that the MCI spots are essentially free advertising for "Motown."

McDonald joins such superstar artists as Madonna, Celine Dion and Sting among performers who have appeared in recent TV ad campaigns. Some companies, notably Dr Pepper this year and last, are also using younger artists like Black Eyed Peas and Thalia to reach different demographics and use entertainment to brand themselves.

"Music can be segmented really specifically to reach consumers," said Aaron Walton, president of music marketing and management firm Aaron Walton Entertainment. "We may disagree on the kind of music that we like, but we all love music."

Walton was a key player in putting together Led Zeppelin with Cadillac for the carmaker's long-running campaign using the group's song "Rock & Roll." He said the success of these partnerships lies in satisfying the needs of both sides.

Mitch Litvak, president of entertainment marketing consultancy the L.A. Office, said he has also seen an explosion of interest on the part of both consumer brands and the music business in joining forces.

"There is definitely more willingness on the part of the industry to work with corporate America, and we've seen a huge growth in interest on the part of corporate America in tying into music," he said. "With a movie promotion, you may get a month's bump from a successful film. Music can really extend the feel and the essence of a brand for a longer length of time."

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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