CBS Records Returns

We were surprised to read in the March 23 Boston Globe that CBS Corp. had re-launched the CBS Records label. Our memory isn't what it once was, but hadn't we read that same story last December?

Well, yes. According to the December 15, 2006 Billboard, CBS had announced the revival of the old record label, adding that "staffing would be kept at a minimum, with five hirings expected next month." Typical record label jobs like publicity, online marketing, and website design were all to be outsourced.

CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System) bought Columbia Records in 1938; in 1988, it sold the Columbia labels (including CBS Records) to Sony Corp. for $2 billion. Sony's license to the CBS Records label expired at some point since then, which made it possible for the television network to "re-launch" a music label. But wait, isn't this the middle of a much ballyhooed slump for the record industry?

Yup. That's why CBS Records is planning to do things a bit differently—for instance, by not actually pressing physical CDs unless the digital sales warrant it. Digital sales? Yup, the new CBS Records was launched to take advantage of new digital distribution methods and take advantage of its unique "synchronicity" with CBS's television properties. Many television shows now "place" popular music within episodes, generally flashing music credits at the end of the episodes. Expect CBS Records artists to be prominently featured on the Tiffany network's shows, although CBS Paramount also produces television shows for other networks. In addition, the label will offer downloads through the iTunes Media Store and

At the label launch last December, CBS Paramount president Nancy Tellem said, "Our artists will have access to an incredibly powerful medium—television—to drive music sales; our television producers will have greater flexibility to use music as a creative enhancement in their shows; and our company will be able to reduce the network's and the studio's music licensing cost center while transforming it into a new revenue stream."

Buried in that biz-speak was a pretty good pun: CBS Paramount produces the popular show Medium, which will almost certainly be creatively enhanced by CBS Records acts.

If the real re-launch was last December, why was the Globe writing about it on Friday? Because out of the label's first four signings, two are from Boston: singer/songwriter Will Dailey and the power-pop band Señor Happy. Singer/songwriter P. J. Olsson and Wilshire are the label's non-Bostonians.

In an interview with the Globe's Joan Anderman, Señor Happy drummer Tom Polce described the band's contract as "very, very fair. Far better than a standard major label deal." Polce said the band's profit on downloads was more similar to the deal a band might cut with an independent label and lacked most of the strings associated with a major label contract.

Larry Jenkins, a music industry consultant, president of LJ Entertainment, and head of CBS Records told Anderman, "We wanted to be revolutionary, not just in how we break and sell artists, but also in being artist-friendly....We're not beholden to the same restraints the majors are held to. This is a marathon, not a sprint. The kind of artists we're signing may take years to break and I don't want to rush it."

That does sound like a new formula. Only time will tell whether CBS Records will walk the walk, but at least it's responding to a broken business model in an innovative way.