Universal Music Group is betting that what worked for Ginsu knives and Thigh Masters will work for Earth, Wind & Fire.
The nation's largest music company is preparing to announce next week that it is getting into the infomercial business, launching a new division devoted to producing and distributing half-hour documentaries aimed at selling the company's catalog of past hits.
The division's first infomercial, the Soul 70's Collection hosted by Isaac Hayes of "Shaft" fame, is already airing in some cities. In addition to Earth, Wind & Fire, the nine-CD set features the Commodores, the Jackson 5 and Marvin Gaye and sells for $129.
Universal's attempt to hawk music by keeping operators standing by is a direct response to large retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Circuit City Stores Inc., which focus almost exclusively on current releases, not past hits. As more and more of the nation's music is sold at such big-box retailers, Universal executives say, classics are getting overlooked.
"The catalogs of Motown and the soul '70s and rock 'n' roll '60s are disappearing from retail shelves," said Ira Pittelman, who will head Universal's new division. "TV is the best way to talk to that audience now."
The infomercials will be largely targeted at the baby boomers who 30 years ago fueled the music industry but who today buy fewer albums.
"Nobody has found a way to capture the 40-year-old and older audience," said Bruce Resnikoff, president of Universal Music Enterprises, the division marketing the company's catalog. "The music business is shrinking. If we don't find new ways to reach people outside of the normal venues, we're destined to failure."
Music companies have long relied on cable channels such as MTV and VH1 to expose listeners to new releases, but only recently have they begun using television to advertise music recorded in earlier eras.
It has proved to be successful. Before coming to Universal, Pittelman ran Heartland Music, which sold more than 100 million CDs, cassettes and vinyl albums through television infomercials in partnership with Time Life Inc.
Even without a blatant pitch, traditional documentaries have also spurred sales. The Martin Scorsese-directed documentary "No Direction Home: Bob Dylan," which is airing this week on some PBS stations, has helped drive recent sales of Dylan's songs from the 1960s. The series' two-CD soundtrack has sold more than 75,000 copies since its release late last month.
But music executives admit that hitting the right note in television advertising campaigns has proved to be challenging. When most people think of music advertised on TV, they think cheesy: the breathless pitchmen, the 800 phone numbers, the scroll of titles on the screen.
Universal Music is trying to trade cheesy for classy. The company's infomercials will cost as much as $800,000 to produce, according to Pittelman, and will feature rare footage of musicians such as Stevie Wonder and Perry Como.
The infomercials begin and end by telling viewers that the program is paid advertising, but those tuning in midway may not realize the show is an ad.
"A while back, the musicians that built rock 'n' roll or started soul music were uncomfortable with television," Pittelman said. "But that's not true anymore. Everyone is older now. They all watch TV."