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POP MUSIC | POP EYE

New Cable Channel Gives Record Companies Access

June 14, 1998|Steve Hochman

Record companies still want their MTV.

But they also want more, having become increasingly frustrated by the tightened playlists and emphasis on non-music video programming on the pioneer cable music channel and its sister, VH1. It's the same feelings that led the major labels to nearly enter into an unprecedented alliance several years ago to launch a competing vehicle.

Hoping to capitalize on that frustration, a new cable music channel, Access Entertainment Network, is set to launch on July 6, offering record companies and other music-oriented entities a chance to design their own programs in half-hour blocks that will be repeated in a regular rotation.

If that sounds a bit like infomercials, it's no coincidence. The channel is the brainchild of company president Bill Bernard, who has had tremendous success already buying unused time on cable channels and reselling it to infomercial producers.

"What's wrong with that?" says one major label president, who had not yet heard of the channel's plans, but was very intrigued. "Look at all the hair-care products sold that way. And every time I turn on MTV, they've got [the drama series] 'My So-Called Life' and not videos."

Sheri Herman, senior vice president of programming for the channel, says the plans came from a year and a half of research.

"We considered many different formats and came to music because there appears to be a hole in the market," she says. "Though MTV and VH1 and BET are extremely successful, there's not much opportunity to get your videos played. MTV is a lifestyle-driven, ratings-driven entity. But we're about more music--70% of each half-hour program will be music videos."

At this point Access has deals with cable operators reaching more than 7 million households (a fraction of MTV's 75 million homes, but good for a start-up) and projections of tripling that in a year. Most of that is currently in the New York and New England areas, though several Southern California systems will be offering the new channel.

That appeals to A&M Records, the first record company to sign up as a "production partner," providing a new show each month geared to adult alternative artists. Titled "Cafe Sound" and co-produced with the Borders retail chain, the first installment will highlight new work by Blues Traveler, Jann Arden and Patty Griffin and catalog releases from Van Morrison and Eric Clapton. Retail outlet Best Buy is also producing a show, "Inside Tracks," and Spin magazine is doing an alternative music program.

"This has nothing to do with MTV for us," says Morty Wiggins, A&M general manager and senior vice president of marketing. "It's that after we spend the money to make videos, get distribution coverage, make sure the records are attractively placed in the stores, you have virtually no money left to advertise and drive people into the stores to buy them. So the money to do this show is essentially the money we already have designated for trying to do that."

SPICY TOPIC: Want to make a record executive laugh? Ask him or her the following question:

How much would you pay to sign Ginger Spice to a solo deal?

Pop Eye posed that query to some top figures in the business, including one who, as an executive, producer and writer, has figured in some of the biggest hits of the decade, another who has signed and marketed numerous major artists, and various A&R execs behind a wide range of acts. And when they stopped guffawing, they unanimously revealed (under promise of anonymity) that they would be loathe to shell out the price of a CD, let along a contract to record one.

"I think that she will for years be my standard for telling a singer why not to leave a group," says the exec-producer-writer. "They [the Spice Girls] made some good records, but what is she thinking?"

Says one A&R figure, "I'm not averse to a pop act. I'm averse to a talentless act. I saw them on 'Saturday Night Live.' If she could sing, maybe we could have a discussion about it."

But that's not to say the former Ms. Spice (Geri Halliwell) might not have a future in the music business. A major label president, while having no interest in her as a performer, wonders if Halliwell's vaunted role in the Girls' marketing and management might auger a future on the other side of the desk.

"She could probably run a record company or be a head of promotion somewhere," the exec says. "She has that unabashed ambition. She'll take no prisoners. There's room for her in the record business--but not as a recording artist."

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