Bing Reloaded

The music industry's next great label? Pottery Barn. Merry Christmas.

So you’ve been shanghaied and dragooned into an Old Navy, forced into overcrowded aisles for an obligatory fashion-accessories holiday present. Happy holidays, Happy holidays, Bing Crosby sings cheerily on the PA system, adding to your sense of Santa Claustrophobia.

But suddenly Bing’s voice goes all weird, overtaken with ’60s psychedelia and harassed by what sounds like a shortwave radio going out of tune. The song starts stuttering and echoing, magnifying your claustrophobia into full-blown schizophrenia, before a thumping dance beat blusters full-volume over old Bing, mixed in with electronic whooshes and blips.

“What the — hey, someone’s done a remix on der Bingle!” you say aloud, transfixed under a store speaker, where you quickly discover that someone hasn’t just victimized Mr. Crosby, but Mel Tormé and Mahalia Jackson, too. But instead of immediately fleeing the premises, you wander around the store absentmindedly, listening and shopping. A Louis Armstrong version of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” accompanied by a little heavy-metal drummer boy? The Berlin Symphony molded into a rave-ready version of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”?

Suddenly it all makes sense.

Eventually you head to the checkout, your basket now mysteriously filled with impulse buys, only to discover another one lurking at the register: a CD packed with all the songs you’ve just absorbed.

How can you resist?

The in-store-CD biz has spread and mutated like last year’s fruitcake. Retailers of all stripes hope you’ll like their piped-in, ambient music so much that you’ll want to buy it for yourself and pipe it into your own abode. And it’s not just Christmas music. Pottery Barn, for example, has essentially become a major record company in addition to a purveyor of tasteful household furnishings, releasing 74 CDs under its Pottery Barn and Pottery Barn for Kids label, stuffed with such big-shot artists as Norah Jones, Clem Snide, Joan Osborne, Los Straitjackets, the Pretenders, Sixpence None the Richer, Zero 7, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and Patti LaBelle.

However, it’s not as if Williams-Sonoma, Chevy’s, Cracker Barrel, or Banana Republic are signing new bands. Instead, they depend on Rock River Communications. For corporate clients wanting to add a little cool to their M.O., Rock River has created more than three hundred such compilations, with tracks leased from traditional record labels. Pottery Barn is the company’s marquee customer, but who else is in the RR rolodex? We’re talking companies like Crabtree & Evelyn, Bank One, J. Crew, the Gap, Levi’s, Volkswagen, Cost Plus, Neiman Marcus, Millers Outpost, Restoration Hardware, Saks, and Jamba Juice, to name but a few. Not bad for a company with only a dozen employees split between the coasts.

The business and billing stuff is done mostly in the Vermont office; the creative, mostly confined to a small office on 19th Street in San Francisco. Holding court in an office overflowing with CDs, album artwork, musical posters, and other radio station-esque ephemera, it’s thus unsurprising that Jeff Daniel, Rock River’s boyish president, sees his work partly as an extension of what radio used to do.

“We want to turn people on to music,” he says. “If you think about the customers of Pottery Barn or Banana Republic, they’re probably not hanging around record stores as much as they did when they were in college. They’ve moved on with their lives, with professions and families, and they just can’t possibly keep up with the thirty to 35,000 new albums that come out every year. We want people to actually listen to our music as they shop, and maybe hear something new that they like. Are we doing this out of a pure aesthetic need to expose people to new music? No, not totally, but we don’t want to give them crap. There’s plenty of that around already.”

This is a notable reversal of past theories about music in retail stores. In the 1940s, Muzak pioneered what it called “ambient” or “environmental” music (most people prefer “elevator music”). Its researchers developed a theory that background music should be heard almost subliminally, not actually listened to. Thus, Muzak depends on arrangements that shun anything attention-seeking. Vocals? Out. Ditto anything the least bit shrill: violas are preferred over violins, French horns over trumpets, brush-played drums over crashing cymbals.

This ain’t that. “We don’t do ambient music,” Jeff says. “It’s a whole different art form. We don’t have focus groups, we do it by gut. Our ‘test marketing’ often involves talking to some of our friends’ kids. We do keep on top of all the trade magazines about what’s coming out, and we get these boxes of CDs from record companies that want us to use their stuff.”

Not that Rock River doesn’t do research. New clients are asked to send media packs and demographic studies; Jeff and his co-workers have also been known to loiter in clients’ stores to get a sense of the atmosphere and clientele.

That means trying to match the music to the store’s image and its clients’ tastes. For the Gap, that can mean Missy and Madonna; for Old Navy, En Vogue and Moby; for Banana Republic, Greyboy and Marvin Gaye.

“We have a challenge, since a CD has to convince the consumer to pick it up and look at it,” Jeff explains. “That means having artwork and an album name that will signal that this is a cohesive entity. You can’t have a mix that’s too eclectic, because they’ll wonder, ‘What is this? Is this a world CD, a Latin CD, an electronic CD, or what?’ On the other hand, you don’t want it completely predictable either. You want them to recognize enough of the titles or artists on the album that they’re willing to take a leap of faith on the ones they don’t know. Eventually, they learn that they can trust us to know the sorts of things they’ll want to hear.”

Rock River’s biggest success story: the 74-CD Pottery Barn empire. “Consumers come back and say, “I’ve got five or ten of these, and they’re all great — I’m willing to take a chance on another one,'” Jeff says. That’s given us the chance to branch out into slightly different genres and hopefully push people’s boundaries a bit.”

Of course, Rock River doesn’t monopolize this industry: Starbucks, for example, creates its own mixes, often “Artist’s Choice” discs featuring fourteen tunes hand-picked by, say, Norah Jones. In 1999, the coffee giant bought Hear Music, a catalogue store in Massachusetts with only two retail stores, including one in Berkeley. But once it became a wholly-owned subsidiary, Hear largely became an in-house conduit for this coffeebar music, providing soothing tunes to enjoy over a grande half-caf soy latte.

But even with a corporate juggernaut in the biz, Rock River has carved out a comfortable niche. The sound of vintage jazz seeps down the hallway from the office of David Hargis, director of account management and moonlighting DJ for KUSF 90.3 FM. Although RR has put out compilations like Pottery Barn’s Dirty Martini (featuring original jazz recordings unsullied by modern hands), Hargis today is reviewing candidates for Bing-bothering remix artists aspiring to scratch, loop, beat, and mash the old into something new. It’s a challenge. “Generally, I’m looking for a hook,” David says. “Good sound, too, because a lot of this stuff is poorly recorded. And recognizability of the song: I’ve been struggling with that, too.”

Rock River’s clients like remix compilations because they bridge a gap between retro and current sounds. The company has generated 153 remixes of Christmas songs, and has since branched out to Latin and jazz experiments. “We give the source track to remixers we like,” David explains, “and they come back with kind of a scratchpad of ideas, and we say, ‘This idea is really great, this idea isn’t, throw it out and go here.’ They’re so talented, and so many are dying to work for companies like us, because their records aren’t selling so well and, since it’s not really live music, they can’t make money from going on a tour and selling T-shirts. So they’re psyched to make money sitting at home and say, ‘I did a remix on Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, and Nat King Cole.'”

Of course, clients sometimes balk at the final results. A printed-out e-mail from an anonymous client hangs on Jeff’s door, fussing about “inappropriate” lyrics in classic rock songs, like All you did was wreck my bed/In the morning kick me in the head from “Maggie May,” I never understood a single word he said but I helped him drink his wine from “Joy to the World,” and the good ol’ boys drinking whiskey and rye of “American Pie.”

“Some of the clients just love our choices from the start,” Jeff shrugs, “and some want to play DJ and put their imprint on it, so they can say to their friends, ‘I produced this CD.’ There are times when we’ll strongly recommend against some sequence, and tell them why, but ultimately, the client always has the final say. The hardest thing sometimes is to step back and let that baby go.”

But there’s still one more step, and it’s a big one: obtaining rights to the songs. “It can be a long process,” Jeff admits. “David has to do a lot of research to make sure we’re dealing with the one true legitimate owner, because there are a lot of old jazz and Christmas songs claimed by two or three different companies. We don’t want to get in the middle of that battle, so in that case, we don’t touch the song.”

There is a loophole for older recordings, though. “In the old days, bands would do live broadcasts on radio,” David says. “Under the copyright laws back then, recordings of those broadcasts didn’t legally belong to a record company. Since many of those recordings are nearly identical to the versions on record, we can get around some of the ownership difficulties.”

Living artists can be troublesome as well. For example, Bruce Springsteen, Dave Matthews, and R.E.M. refuse all requests to appear on any noncharity compilations. “James Taylor has long had a ‘do not license’ order, but then he went and recorded an entire Christmas album for Hallmark,” Jeff notes. “Go figure.” On the other hand, some artists are eager to please, especially if exposure and cash is involved. “Madonna, it comes down to quantity for her,” Jeff says. “Moby really likes to get his stuff out there. He’s a good businessman — he’s made much more income from compilations and ads than he has selling albums.”

And he has disoriented but intrigued Pottery Barn shoppers to thank.

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