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POP MUSIC | Pop Eye

Is $430 Box Being Cruel to Elvis Lovers?

No, says RCA's Presley-minded executive, the 30-CD collection is 'really a gift set for fans.'

July 25, 1999|STEVE HOCHMAN

Elvis is King . . . again.

Another achievement will be added to the legacy of Elvis Presley with the late-August release of "The Elvis Presley Collection," a monster box set of 30 CDs, featuring more than 500 different songs--and a regal list price of $429.98.

The bulk of the package easily surpasses what is generally accepted as the previous pop music record-holder: "Frank Sinatra: The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings," a 20-CD set of Ol' Blue Eyes' albums issued in 1995. That did come with a higher list price ($499), though that in part was due to the fact that it was contained in a suitcase.

"To the best of my knowledge this is the biggest in pop," says Pete Howard, publisher and editor of the ICE monthly CD newsletter, noting that there have been several larger sets honoring classical and jazz figures.

The Presley box is the latest in the upgrade campaign of the Presley catalog that kicked into gear in 1996 when Michael Omansky took over as senior vice president of strategic marketing for RCA Records, the only recording home of the Tupelo titan after Sun's Sam Phillips sold his contract in 1955. Under Omansky's watch, numerous original albums and new anthologies have been packaged to include previously unreleased concert and studio recordings and alternate takes.

This one, though, contains no new music, consisting of 29 already-existing albums plus a bonus disc of an interview that was released only on a promotional basis in the '80s, and a special poster.

"I had to be careful with this," he says. "I didn't want to put in [tracks] music fans couldn't get elsewhere and make it like we were forcing them to buy a 30-CD set to get the new tracks. It's really a gift set for fans, with the interview disc and poster adding value."

Will the fans go for it?

Bob Feterl, Los Angeles regional manager for Tower Records, is taking a cautious approach.

"This is a tough one," he says. "If there's nothing new on it to entice die-hard fans except to just have the package, it could be a tough sell."

He notes that the package of Sinatra albums did fairly well on initial release. Sales dried up, however, after the initial interest, and his stores currently are selling copies in stock at a discounted price.

Omansky, though, says that demand for such a package among Presley fans has already been demonstrated.

"We did a 50-CD set before overseas by mail-order only, and sold 20,000 copies, with the U.K. the strongest market," he says. "That's a million discs. This is a different version, updated and with as few duplicated songs as possible, and done in a way that we could bring the price under the $500 level."

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ROYAL GUARDIAN: Holding the keys to the King's musical kingdom, Omansky has quite a legacy in his charge--and he's won kudos for putting it back on track after years of what seemed like haphazard and poorly thought-out releases.

Under his guidance, Presley reissues have emphasized bonus tracks of previously unreleased material along with attractive packaging. The catalog has been selling at a rate of more than a million per year of late in the U.S., according to SoundScan tracking, with many more coming through non-SoundScan sources, such as several gospel collections that have been strong in supermarkets and Christian bookstores.

But isn't he going to hit a wall soon? There would seem to be only so many new ways to package and market this stuff.

Not at all, he says. Working closely with Elvis Presley Enterprises, the company that is run by Priscilla Presley and that oversees all matters relating to the singer, he's focusing on the international market and reaching out to a younger audience to whom Presley has not been overexposed. He's also tracking down tapes of concerts and even studio sessions that are turning up at a steady rate, all to keep the King's catalog fresh.

"We've set up a collectors' label through BMG Denmark," he says, citing one example. "Through this we'll periodically sell product that we don't think has potential for widespread retail, but that real die-hard fans can't get enough of, like live recordings that are not up to the standards we think we can sell. The first was released last week, a concert from 1968."

RUB A DUB: Michael Goldstone, the DreamWorks Records executive who while at Epic in the early '90s helped Pearl Jam ascend from the ashes of Mother Love Bone after the drug death of Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, is squiring another project with a similar history.

He's signed the Long Beach Dub All Stars, the band built around the remnants of Sublime, whose leader, Bradley Nowell, died in 1996 of an overdose right before the group's music found a vast, national audience.

"We've all been through things in the past that Jon Phillips [the band's manager] felt would create the right amount of sensitivity," says Goldstone, currently riding a rock success with the L.A. band Buckcherry. "We really connected."

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