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Record Companies on Offbeat Track in Promoting Discs


Lionel Ridenour and Jeff House promote music for Capitol Records. But unlike their independent counterparts, who came under scrutiny last month in the payola trial of record promoter Joseph Isgro, the pair don't spend time schmoozing at commercial radio stations.

Instead, Ridenour and House frequent local hot spots and mom-and-pop record stores, handing out music to neighborhood "taste makers" who can help advertise a new song when they cruise down the street blasting their boom boxes or car stereos. Since they were hired a year ago, they have helped boost album sales for several Capitol acts, including rap artist Mellow Man Ace and singer Tracie Spencer.

"The one thing that rap has taught us is that you don't have to have radio to sell a million records anymore," said the two men's boss, Step Johnson, who heads Capitol Records' black music division. "Promoting records has changed."

With an explosion in the number of new records creating a music bottleneck at radio stations, and with the lyrics of some groups--such as rap groups 2 Live Crew and Geto Boys--so sexually explicit that no station will air them, the record industry is looking at other outlets to promote music,

A few weeks ago, 3,300 people attended a Los Angeles conference aimed at exploring ways to market heavy metal music, which has been virtually shut out of Top 40 radio. Bob Chiappardi, president of Concrete Marketing Inc., the New York-based firm that organized the event, told the conference: "It's no secret that in the (heavy) metal arena, strong word of mouth is the greatest tool in breaking a new band."

To generate that buzz, record companies have set up promotion teams similar to Capitol's and hired firms to encourage retailers to play albums and music videos in their stores. Labels are also marketing albums over the telephone or paying companies to plaster neighborhoods with promotional posters--a controversial practice known as "sniping" that has upset some city

The new tactics are increasing the already sky-high costs of marketing music. But they are giving record companies more insight into which media are most effective in promoting music. That could reduce the influence of record promoters like Isgro, who returned to his business last month after a federal judge ended his payola trial and dismissed all charges against him. Federal prosecutors have appealed the decision. Meanwhile, Isgro may find that more consumers are discovering music through avenues other than radio.

"I learn about a lot of music through friends or just riding around," said Orlando Murray, who was flagged down by the Capitol promotion team as he and Eduardo Gonzalez III tooled around Los Angeles in a Nissan pickup truck with a stack of 60 music cassettes. "If I hear somebody in another car playing a new jam, I'll stop them and ask what it is."

Through such word of mouth, heavy metal bands such as Metallica and Anthrax, as well as rap groups such as N.W.A. and Public Enemy, are selling millions of albums with little or no radio airplay. In one sign of the times, Walt Disney Co.'s fledgling Hollywood Records says it won't seek commercial radio play for upcoming albums by comedienne Roseanne Barr and the band World War III but will market the artists through touring and alternative means.

"There used to be a sort of vicious cycle in which radio stations wouldn't play a record unless it showed sales activity, and you couldn't generate sales activity until the record got radio exposure," explained Lenny Leon, marketing manager at Concrete Marketing. Now musicians can gain exposure through other means. His firm offers one way: a one-hour reel of rock music videos distributed to retailers.

Worldwide Entertainment Marketing, a New York firm backed by Bertelsmann Music Group, promotes records over a 900-prefix telephone line called Hot Disc. The service allows callers to hear new records and order them through J&R Music World in New York.

Such techniques contrast with record promotion practices of as recently as a decade ago, when radio was virtually the sole focus of the labels. During the 1980s, record companies paid $50 million to $60 million annually to about a dozen independent record promoters to get music aired on radio stations. Artists who didn't get airplay didn't sell many records.

That began to change with the growing clout of dance club disc jockeys and, later, with the emergence of cable television's 24-hour music channel, MTV.

The first big break for pop star Madonna, for instance, came in dance clubs after she met former New York City club disc jockey John (Jellybean) Benitez. He helped produce Madonna's 1983 debut album and relied on a nationwide network of club deejays to promote it.

"We made Madonna," boasted Dannie (Fut) James, co-owner of Impact Records, a Los Angeles company that supplies 100 disc jockeys with records in exchange for a $75 monthly fee from each.

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