The Cover Stars: Music and magazine deals

Blondie’s LP is the latest to be sold in a one-off magazine format and Alice Cooper’s is next. Ian Burrell meets the people behind the deals that could change the face of the music industry

Ian Burrell/ The Independent.co.uk    06/13/11

A month before Halloween, the rocker Alice Cooper will release his next album Welcome to My Nightmare Part II and in that moment will offer the music and magazine industries an idea as to how they can awaken from the bad dream that has tormented them for most of the past decade.

This will be an album release like none before. Firstly you’ll be able to acquire it in your local supermarket or WH Smith, packaged up in a magazine with high production values and assorted merchandise. Or if you prefer something less physical, then the album will come as an iPad app with exclusive video interviews. The content of both products will be edited by the king of theatrical shock rock himself.

It’s a format that is being dubbed “The Fan Pack” and it appears to be a viable means of persuading music fans to part with £14.99 for a new release that they might otherwise have sought to download for nothing.

Pioneering this technique is the niche publishing house Future, which has just produced its first fan pack – in the shape of the latest album from Blondie, Panic of Girls. The official British release is not until 4 July but fans can avail themselves of a magnificent 132-page magazine, presented with badges, postcards and a poster. The package is cover-mounted with the album itself.

According to Chris Ingham, group publisher at Future, the fan pack format has the potential to transform the relationship between the magazine industry and the music business. “Record companies have acknowledged that music magazines are amplifiers but they have also thought they were parasites,” he said. “Moving forward, magazines will be seen much more as partners and something to rely on.”

Ingham is a heavy rock fan himself and used to edit Metal Hammer magazine. The idea for fan packs was hatched in the Soho drinking den Garlic & Shots when he and Jordan Berliant, the manager of rock band Linkin Park, were working out distribution for a new album from former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, another of Berliant’s charges. Complaining that “there’s nowhere to sell it”, Slash’s manager bemoaned the lack of record shops. “But you sell your stuff in lots of places,” he added. Ingham considered the concept of a CD launched as a magazine and “we just did the handshake there”.

He admits now that “we had no idea whether it would work” and the concern was “whether people would care enough about [Slash] to pay £15”. The magazine was released as a special edition of the Future title Classic Rock. “Crucially we were able to put them into non-traditional music outlets so that you could target people who would never go to music stores who had bought Guns N’ Roses albums 20 years before.”

Not only did the magazine/album sell 30,000 copies, it didn’t harm the later release of the standard priced CD, which has taken total sales to more than 100,000. “That’s exceptional isn’t it?” says Ingham.

Since then Future has produced two more fan pack releases for rock bands Motorhead and Whitesnake. The former sold 20,000, when the band’s previous album shifted only 12,000 copies.

Scott Rowley has been editor-in-chief of all the fan packs so far produced. He says the close co-operation of the artists is crucial to the success of the projects. “So far we have had really good relationships with the artists – nobody has asked for anything to be re-written… the artists seem to get the idea of it.”

The concept is to give consumers fresh material relating to the new release – “the ultimate sleeve notes” – rather than simply recycle old interviews and biographical details.

On occasions, the publishers have had to step in to emphasise their professional experience – such as when Blondie were keen to feature band members Chris Stein and Clem Burke on the cover alongside iconic singer Debbie Harry. “We were adamant that it was going to have to be her alone because half the cover is taken up by a CD,” says Ingham. “It’s curating and handholding. We took pictures of a newsstand with all the magazines in it and said, ‘If you put that in it with the three band members next to all these other magazines it will get lost’. When the logic was presented to them they were totally fine with it.”

Rowley believes that such projects have the capacity to further transform the relationship between music writers and artists. “Music journalism itself is changing because there’s so much criticism online and everyone can review a release on Amazon, so the music journalist as a critic has diminished a little,” he says. “We are more people who write about musicians and [at Future] we are well placed to do that with musician titles like Guitarist and Total Guitar. The NME, for example, have spent years building up and knocking people down, but Future has always been more on the musician’s side, I would say.”

The Blondie magazine, which is the first in the series to carry no Classic Rock badging (because they are not a classic rock group), was edited by dedicated fan Chris Roberts, who had penned an ode to the band in a book he edited called Idle Worship. The project was given the green light by Simon Carver of RSK Entertainment, which represents the band and their management in Europe.

“It’s an imaginative way of doing something beyond the CD, which is quite an old format and a devalued one,” Carver says. “With regards to original music buyers and anyone who was an LP buyer, you want bigger and more with a release rather than less. Technology is actually making a release smaller as a physical or conceptual item and we are down to micro pack shots on iPods from glorious album art and very little of the tactile. There’s no ritual anymore, it’s just pressing a button. With this, it’s large and substantial and the graphics work very well.”

To promote the concept, Carver hired music publicist Alan Edwards and his Outside Organisation, which persuaded Harry to promote the release on ITV’s Loose Women and on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Edwards, who represented Blondie at the height of their fame in the New Wave era, was anxious that younger music fans were made aware of Debbie Harry’s role in pop music history. “With the greatest respect to [Lady] Gaga and Madonna it was Debbie Harry who broke the stereotypes. Before her, girls in rock were hardly ever taken seriously and she broke the mould. She was very sexy but the music wasn’t really sold on sex.”

To support this approach, Future’s own marketing team seeded news of the fan pack release on websites related to acts such as Lady Gaga and the Scissor Sisters, and through Facebook and the website of gay magazine Attitude.

Although the bands who have so far chosen to release albums as magazines are all established acts with a deep fan base, Ingham believes that there is potential for newer acts to follow a similar strategy if record companies are willing to accept a lower price point and to build interest around a band in the run-up to the product being placed on the newsstand (or tablets).

The Alice Cooper release will be most significant because he is on Universal, the biggest record company of them all. The rocker’s manager, Shep Gordon, gave Future the task “Put Halloween in a box” and that’s what Ingham and Rowley will be trying to achieve in the four-week window before the official release of the album in mid-October, when Cooper will perform a major show in London.

The pair are hoping that hardcore Cooper fans will purchase the “physical” magazine version and the more portable digital version (a format which will conquer the international distribution problems that have limited the previous fan packs).

Ingham already has a wish list for further projects. “I reckon U2 would come up with some great ways of reconnecting and getting intimate with them – if you were able to do that as a digital version as well, think of the amount of footage you could get with them.”

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