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Staying in the Spotlight: The Strategic Value of Themed EPs

By Jeannie Naujeck

© 2011 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

The annual rash of holiday-themed albums occurs as regularly as changes of the season. Now, a variation on this practice is becoming popular and not just because of timing. Thanks in part to the shift toward digital delivery, artists as well as fans are benefiting from releases of EPs offering mini-bouquets of songs tied to special occasions, events and various themes.

Like full-length albums, many of these more compact products maximize their sales potential by mirroring some special time of the year, as Rascal Flatts did late in 2009 with Unwrapped, featuring their renditions of five Christmas standards.

“This kind of short-run, limited offering is perfectly suited for digital only release,” observed Wayne Leeloy, Senior Director of Artist Services Nashville, Topspin Media. “There’s not as much riding on projects like these as there might be around a much larger, heavier-anticipated release, so a focus on digital is likely a safe one.”

And it’s adaptable to less traditional events, going beyond Christmas and Valentine’s Day to other celebrations — spring break, for instance. That annual milestone dovetailed nicely with the rise of Luke Bryan; he had built a strong following on the college circuit by the time he signed with Capitol Records Nashville, so it was a priority for him to keep that connection alive.

“Luke had been playing on campuses and was singing songs that this rowdy crowd would sing back to him,” said Cindy Mabe, Senior VP for Marketing, Capitol/EMI Nashville Records. “It took two years to do his first album and he felt the college crowd was moving on.”

So Bryan suggested putting out some music with a spring break theme. The result was 2009’s Spring Break with All My Friends, a three-song iTunes release that featured demos of “Sorority Girl” (written by Bryan, Dallas Davidson and Jim McCormick) and “Take My Drunk Ass Home” (Bryan and Jason Matthews) plus an unplugged version of “All My Friends Say” (Bryan, Jeff Stevens and Lonnie Wilson). Priced at $2.49, it sold 416 units in its first week and has since sold more than 14,000.

He followed up in 2010 with Spring Break 2: Hangover Edition and in March with Spring Break 3: It’s a Shore Thing. The latter’s strong performance, with 15,000 sales during the first week and a peak of No. 1 on iTunes’ Country album chart, kept Bryan in the spotlight and gave him a boost as he prepares to release his third album in August.

It’s a strategy that works across genre lines. Americana artist Brandi Carlile released a Valentine’s Day EP of love songs, XOBC, through iTunes for $3.99, featuring three new songs and two covers. And Ryan Adams repackaged several of his previously released love songs on the tongue-in-cheek Extra Cheese, also on iTunes for $3.99.

Although a holiday hook is helpful in that it provides a press angle, it isn’t always essential. In January, Sunny Sweeney put out a five-song digital EP to preview her forthcoming album on Republic Nashville. It included “From a Table Away” (Bob DiPiero, Karyn Rochelle and Sweeney), released as a single to radio in June 2010.

Another point in favor of this EP series is that relative to full albums, they cost much less in overall production and come with a grass-roots feel. “We didn’t do it for the money,” Mabe explained. “From a profit and loss perspective, we’re making money on these EPs, but it’s really more of a marketing tool. It’s been a brilliant idea, and I credit Luke for it.”

At the same time, Bryan kept building his career with “Do I” (Bryan, Dave Haywood and Charles Kelley), “Rain Is a Good Thing” (Bryan and Davidson), “Someone Else Calling You Baby” (Bryan and Stevens) and other radio-friendly singles. Even so, the EPs remain a significant part of his plan.

“It’s grown to help us brand what he’s about,” Mabe said. “It puts another tent pole in his career. It’s not what you’ll find on his records but aimed at a young audience. He loves college audiences and that base is growing.

“Also, albums are taking so long at radio,” she continued. “They may not fully represent who you are as an artist. They don’t show your full body of work and what you’re about. And for a new artist, it can be hard to find your place and where you fit.”

Because it also takes so long for singles to scale the charts on Country radio, digital EPs allow the artist to keep offering new songs to fans. For example, when Jason Michael Carroll released Christmas on the Farm in 2010, containing four traditional songs and an original title track that was released to radio, he wasn’t anticipating his new album, Numbers, release until July 26 on Cracker Barrel.

EPs also help artists stay in the public eye between full-length album releases. Bryan’s third album, Tailgates & Tanlines, doesn’t come out until Aug. 9, but in March he played to 4,000 spring breakers on Florida’s Panama City Beach, performing the party songs as well as introducing some of his more mainstream music to them.

“I don’t see why you can’t release smaller pieces of product to keep yourself fresh in the marketplace,” said Jules Wortman, President/Owner, Wortman Works Media & Marketing and a longtime proponent of EPs and mini-albums. “If you sell through the EP and then put an album out there, you’ve got constant presence and visibility. Once you go through your marketing budget, it’s hard to maintain your presence. You can take a modified risk on iTunes and the price point is equivalent to the return. But it seems like an easier way to make a profit, as opposed to putting out a piece of product that becomes stale if you don’t have the marketing dollars to work it for awhile.”

CMA research has made it clear that more Country fans than ever are finding their new music online. It follows that EPs positioned strategically between album releases appeals to the expectations of the online consumer.

“I think the traditional cycles of album release and a tour lasting 18 to 24 months may be coming to a close,” said Leeloy. “The kind of positive feedback and excitement surrounding acts who deliver new music more regularly — say every three to 12 months — is an exciting prospect to consider and a great case study to pay attention to.”

Bill Monroe: A Centennial Celebration

By Robert K. Oermann

© 2011 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

Sept. 13, 2011 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the father of bluegrass music and one of his longtime friends has honored him with a musical tribute.

Banjo player and producer Mike Scott often played, dined and shared stories with CMA’s Country Music Hall of Fame member Bill Monroe. Scott was never a member of the master’s famed Blue Grass Boys band, but he was closer to him than many musicians who were.

“I had my idols,” Scott recalled with a smile. “Bill was the Man, and I knew it. I met him when I was just a kid, back in East Tennessee. After I moved to Nashville, we’d get backstage and jam. We’d hang out on his tour bus. Bill and I fell into the habit of buying each other breakfast. He’d call me out of the blue and we’d talk on the phone. I wouldn’t take anything for my memories of Bill Monroe. I wanted to do something to capture the feeling and spirit of Monroe.”

The result is Blue Moon of Kentucky: Instrumental Tribute to Bill Monroe, produced by Scott and released by Rural Rhythm Records to commemorate his centennial year, the set consists of 18 performances by a who’s-who cast of bluegrass instrumentalists. Scott is seen regularly on RFD-TV’s “Reno’s Old Time Music Festival” series as a member of Ronnie Reno’s band. Bryan Sutton has been named Guitarist of the Year five times by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). Dobro player Rob Ickes won the same recognition in his category 12 times and mandolinist Adam Steffey seven times in his. Bassist Ben Isaacs is a mainstay of his family’s bluegrass/gospel band The Isaacs as well as an in-demand Nashville session player. Mike Compton plays mandolin in the acclaimed Nashville Bluegrass Band, named IBMA’s Vocal Group of the Year annually in 1990–’93 and Entertainer of the Year in 1992 and ’93. Guitarist Tim Stafford won a Grammy Award as a member of Alison Krauss & Union Station and two 1996 IBMA awards with his group Blue Highway. And fiddler Aubrey Haynie has been a first-call studio player since 1994; IBMA honored his third solo album, The Bluegrass Fiddle Album as Instrumental Performance of the Year for 2003.

“All these guys are artists in their own right,” said Scott. “Each instrument stands alone, yet it is a blend. The sessions were live and very exciting. I wanted to get people on this who really, really knew the music.”

This all-star instrumental album is one of several celebrations of the Monroe centennial. “There will be a tribute at the IBMA Awards, which takes place, fittingly, in September,” said Dan Hays, Executive Director, IBMA. “There is going to be an album released later this year of some previously unreleased Bill Monroe recordings. The Bluegrass Music Museum (in Owensboro, Ky.) is planning an event to fall on or near the actual birthday. There will be an event in Rosine, Ky., where he was born and where he rests. We have urged our members around the world to do something to dedicate the year to Bill. This means that hundreds of (bluegrass) festivals will have tributes. On the radio front, we’re seeing broadcasters doing something every week, all year long. Kyle Cantrell programs the Bluegrass Junction channel on Sirius XM, and he is working on a tribute.”

And then there is the movie, an upcoming biographical film, also titled Blue Moon of Kentucky and featuring Del McCoury as the voice and his son Ronnie McCoury as the mandolin of Bill Monroe. Ronnie McCoury co-produced the soundtrack with T Bone Burnett, with the script by Burnett’s wife Callie Khori (“Thelma and Louise” screenwriter) and Finn Taylor.

The man being honored in these various ways was born William Smith Monroe near Rosine, Ky. He rose to fame initially in a duo with his older brother Charlie. Their “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul” became a major hit in 1936. After The Monroe Brothers broke up in 1938, Bill formed The Blue Grass Boys and came to Nashville to audition for the Grand Ole Opry. He joined the WSM show’s cast in 1939 and remained with until his death in 1996. “You know, he used to joke that they named the radio station after his initials, WSM,” Scott recalled. “He was very proud to be on the Opry.”

Mandolinist/singer Monroe recruited guitarist/singer Lester Flatt and banjo player Earl Scruggs as Blue Grass Boys in 1945. Along with fiddler Howdy Forrester and bassist Howard Watts, they created the style now called “bluegrass” in honor of the band’s name. Many sources pinpoint its birth to Dec. 8, 1945, when this lineup made its debut at the Opry. With Chubby Wise replacing Forrester on fiddle, the “classic” lineup first recorded on Sept. 16, 1946, cutting the immortal “Blue Moon of Kentucky” among other songs.

“Bill Monroe birthed an entire style of music,” Hays noted. “You have an entire music community that has sprung from him — record labels, festivals, organizations, publications and radio shows. He was one of the most prolific songwriters of his time. In the bluegrass world, there is a long list of (Monroe) standards that are part of the canon of this music, 60 to 70 years after they were penned.”

Hays also observed that the majority of the first-generation bluegrass stars were former Blue Grass Boys. Vassar Clements, Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Del McCoury, Sonny Osborne of The Osborne Brothers, Peter Rowan, Carter Stanley of The Stanley Brothers and Mac Wiseman are all “graduates” of Monroe’s bands.

“(Blue Grass Boys) Kenny Baker and Bobby Hicks were big influences on me,” said Haynie, the only instrumentalist other than Scott and Isaacs to play on every track of the tribute album. “I met Kenny when I was 9 years old. I still call him every two or three months. Kenny’s fiddling really matched Bill’s phrasing. Bill Monroe wrote his songs on mandolin, but they work really great as fiddle tunes. And I did get to play ‘Uncle Pen’ with him one time. It was at The Station Inn around 1993 or 1994. What a thrill.

“I took my family up to Rosine two years ago,” he continued. “We walked around Jerusalem Ridge and I kept hearing all these melodies in the wind. Bill Monroe’s music is more than just notes; there’s a lonesome feeling to it.”

Scott also first encountered the legend when he was around 10 years old. A banjo prodigy, he began touring the bluegrass festival circuit at 11. When he was 15, Monroe offered him a job, but Scott declined the opportunity in order to finish his schooling. He moved to Nashville in 1983 to join Jim & Jesse’s Virginia Boys. The band often traveled alongside Monroe’s en route to shows and festivals.

“Bill was a night owl,” Scott said. “One night we got off the buses at a truck stop on (Tennessee’s) Monteagle Mountain. He goes, ‘Let me buy you some hen eggs.’ I said, ‘No, it’s my turn to buy.’ But after we ate, he grabbed the ticket. While he was paying, I could see him buying something and putting it into a little bag.

“Now, back when I was 14 or 15, I was backstage at a festival and not paying attention to my instrument. My dad came up behind me where I couldn’t see him, grabbed my Gibson banjo and locked it in the trunk of the car. So when I turned around and reached for my banjo, it was gone. I was in a panic. I looked everywhere. Finally, my dad opens the trunk and says, ‘There it is. Don’t leave it settin’ around or somebody is going to walk off with it.’ After that, I made a habit of putting my foot on my banjo case.

“So at the truck stop, Bill comes out with this little bag. He said, ‘Go get your banjo.’ I thought, ‘Does he want to pick at 2:30 in the morning?’ I got the banjo. He reached into the bag and pulled out this sticker. It said, ‘Keep Feet Off.’ He pulled the backing off and stuck it right on my banjo case. So that was his humor. It’s still on my case.

“Another time, he called me up early in the morning. Of course, I knew who it was right away; there was no mistaking his voice. He said, ‘Hang on just a minute.’ I heard the phone bumping and banging. He gets his mandolin and plays me this instrumental tune he had just written. I thought, ‘I have got to try to remember this.’

“After a few minutes, he laid the mandolin down and picked the phone back up. He said, ‘Did you hear that? Do you know who this is?’ I just fell out. I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘I was just thinking about you. I wrote this tune and I want you to hear it.’ I’d give anything to have recorded it.

“He was a genius. He was a motivator. He is the creator of a music. He left a mark. I feel very fortunate to have known him.”

On the Web: www.MikeScottMusic.com

CMA created the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961 to recognize individuals for their outstanding contributions to the format with Country Music’s highest honor. Inductees are chosen by CMA’s Hall of Fame Panels of Electors, which consist of anonymous voters appointed by the CMA Board of Directors.

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