[Proclaimer: I wrote the booklet essay for the ““The Real Thing” live CD/DVD package. I was there, too. Jumping up and down, screaming, going crazy with everyone else. Beyond that, though, I love Ashford & Simpson. No, make that I worship Ashford & Simpson. I get down on my hands and knees before them. The first time I saw them, at Radio City well over 20 years ago, it changed my life. And I’m not alone. Hardly. In fact, everyone who ever meets them wants to be near them at all times. Just to bask in their love and kindness. But I’m not biased. No. Not at all. How dare you think that? Don’t even go there!]
It was long in the making and now it’s long in the promoting.
Ashford & Simpson’s “The Real Thing,” which came out in both CD and DVD format via Sony Music’s Burgundy label on January 27, was recorded live at Feinstein’s nightclub in New York in late 2007 after the legendary singing-songwriting-performing couple’s triumphant three-week stand there. It was their first release of new recordings since “Been Found” in 1996—not counting last year’s double-disc “The Warner Bros. Years: Hits, Remixes & Rarities,” which included new remixes of their hits, many of which have resurfaced live on “The Real Thing” along with versions of their classic Motown compositions like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You’re All I Need to Get By” and the title-inspiring “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing.”
But here we are at the end of April and the title is still being promoted. In fact, its promotion may be picking up in a textbook example of new marketing methodology.
“What I like about this project in particular is that it’s not wed to normal music marketing cycles,” says Jeff Rowland, “The Real Thing”’s executive producer/deal-maker, citing the unique nature of Ashford & Simpson’s music. “You can work on it and keep working on it because Ashford & Simpson’s music is timeless: Everybody knows it, so it isn’t wed to the normal cycles of hit radio airplay—and we could do anything we thought that was necessary, appropriate or possible to position to sell and continue to sell this record. We got into it knowing it wasn’t a ‘slam, bam, on to the next thing’ project.”
Rowland was himself perfectly positioned to handle all aspects of “The Real Thing,” from production to promotion. Having started out as a talent agent at ICM, he later worked at Metropolitan Talent and PolyGram Diversified Entertainment and was involved in entrepreneurial activities including artist management, independent record label operation, concert and event production and theatrical production.
He also was in charge of booking Feinstein’s, where Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson did an initial two-week stint in the fall of 2006.
“It was a great booking and we wanted to get them back,” continues Rowland. “Val had expressed interest in playing there again, but wanted to do something different and special and thought it would be great to make a record there. We met for lunch and they were such open and warm people—and the music was so good—that I decided to see if I could bring it about in an extracurricular way.”
In addition to his booking and production hats, Rowland’s Two Hands Entertainment company specializes in producing live entertainment and media deriving from it.
“When Val said she wanted a record deal, I found myself in the unique position to do something about it, and we thought we had a deal but a month before the taping the label dropped out and we thought all was lost,” says Rowland. “Then Val decided to fund the taping anyway just to have a record of it for herself. So I said, ‘If you do that, we’ll shoot in high definition and record it digitally and I’ll still go out afterwards and try to get a deal.’ They didn’t think it would happen and it took a year, but then I found Media Push.”
Media Push Entertainment is a full-service marketing and distribution company focused on the development, acquisition, production and worldwide distribution rights for music and general entertainment content in a variety of forms including theatrical, digital cinema, DVD, TV, CD web, and wireless releases. As Tony Bennett’s manager/son Danny Bennett is a principal (the company’s name, incidentally, comes from the title of the 1974 album released by Bennett’s obscure band Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends), the company had a built-in relationship with Sony due to his father’s longtime label home at Columbia (Danny’s RPM Records label puts out Tony’s albums now via Columbia).
“The Real Thing,” then, is Media Push’s first release in a venture with Sony.
“We were fired up about it because they’d shot the program in HD and it was a great, quality product,” says Media Push president Steve Sterling. “We were also big fans of Ashford & Simpson, and figured that they’d never gotten all the credit they deserve–having written so many important songs that have touched so many hearts and minds. You might not know Nick and Val so well as artists, but you know their songs. So it’s one of the greatest untold stories in the entertainment business and they’re such wonderful people, so we’d been talking about doing something with them for quite a while and when they put the show together—that’s entirely hit-driven—we could finance the whole rights deal. So we said, ‘Let’s go for it!’”
As Sterling relates, Media Push is geared to serve as a “media rights marketing partner.”
“We can do things that people think only labels can do,” he explains. “You definitely need a big, powerful label pipeline to feed into, but at the end of the day it’s about marketing strategy and follow-through more than how big you are. So from that standpoint it’s a very exciting time: It’s a very level playing field right now in the music entertainment business, and all the traditional ways that artists used to be able to get projects put together have changed or disappeared so we see a real opportunity from an independent position to go to artists and managers and fund projects as media marketing partners. It’s very exciting because you have to think differently—but it’s good for everybody in the end.”
The key element of the marketing effort in support of “The Real Thing” was its rollout on New York metropolitan area PBS station WLIW21–the third most-watched public television station in the nation.
“We were releasing the CD simultaneous with the DVD, so the whole strategy relied on PBS pledge programming,” says Rowland. “Television sells, and PBS is a great utility in that if a pledge program is successful and people subscribe because of pledge programming, they’ll keep playing the program. It’s almost like MTV in the old days, only for an older demo.”
But well before the WLIW was set came an unforeseen development most extraordinary and auspicious.
“Throughout last summer as Nick and Val toured, they’d invariably get audience participation on [their big 1985 pop hit] ‘Solid,’” says Rowland. “They were playing a show in California and Val handed the mic to a lady who changed the chorus on her own from ‘solid as a rock’ to ‘solid as Barack,’ which was a natural—though it had no relation with the rest of the song lyrically. But it caught on and then ‘Saturday Night Live’ picked up on it somehow and did a skit around the time of Obama’s half-hour primetime TV special just before the election. So we mentioned the phenomenon at a marketing meeting with Sony to position the record, and then suggested that Nick and Val record ‘Solid as Barack’ as a free ringtone to draw attention to it. But they were concerned that people might think they were making fun of Barack because of the ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit—and were also concerned that it didn’t make sense with the rest of the song. So Nick wrote new lyrics as a tribute to Barack and to reclaim it from the comedy sketch.”
They recorded the new version of “Solid” for the free ringtone and also made the full song available as a download coinciding with Obama’s inauguration—“which just happened be one week before the album release,” notes Rowland. “I wishI could say it was a brilliant plan—it was!—but it was really a reactive plan. And it got an astounding amount of press: USA Today picked it up and Nick and Val performed on Larry King during inauguration week. Then they did Tavis Smiley’s show on PBS, and David Letterman. And after the inauguration the press transmogrified into the record and Ashford & Simpson and who they are. It was a great kick-starter.”
Then the PBS exposure kicked in.
“PBS was the perfect platform, so the next step was to get a PBS station involved,” says Rowland, lauding Ashford & Simpson’s wide-rangiing interview during WLIW’s initial pledge programming of “The Real Thing.”
“They did such a great job on WLIW that they’re editing it and rolling it out and distributing it to public TV stations across the country for pledge programming in May and June,” he adds, noting that “doing anything on public television is not as easy as you might think. It’s difficult figuring out which shows will be successful. But after they first aired it they were so happy with it that it ended up with six to eight prime time plays and it was very successful–so much so that they embraced it for national summer pledge distribution.”
Rowland says that while CD and DVD giveaways are the norm for PBS pledge drives, concert tickets have been found to be the most effective enticement for donations. So an exclusive Ashford & Simpson show has been scheduled for new WLIW members, thereby bringing “The Real Thing” around full circle.
“They’ll usually offer tickets to a pledge artist like Yanni or Sarah Brightman at Radio City or Madison Square Garden,” he says, “but these are advertised events for the general public. So we’re confounding the normal rules by having a special show at Feinstein’s only for people who become members of WLIW and not the general public. So they can’t get tickets directly from the venue or Ticketmaster.”
Ashford & Simpson are now set to return to Feinstein’s on June 7 and 8—a second night having been added after the first show for new WLIW members sold out immediately. “It’s at the place where we actually taped the CD/DVD show, so people who saw it on WLIW and were infused by the joy of the performance and how much fun the songs are now get the opportunity to go to the scene of the crime and relive it!” says Rowland. “And we’re now looking for different things in different markets this summer where we can similarly recreate the experience.”
An example may be Ashford & Simpson’s concert with The Temptations in Atlanta in August, for which the local PBS affiliate will be contacted, says Rowland.
“All told, this project has taken years now,” he concludes. “But it’s a good project: The show clearly delivers on every level—same with the CD and DVD.”
Incidentally, the DVD offers additional tracks including four new Ashford & Simpson originals written for a musical based on E. Lynn Harris’s compelling first novel “Invisible Life,” climaxing with the titletrack, “an anthem celebrating human diversity,” as New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote in his review—and as I quoted him in my liner notes! Quoting now from myself: “God is watching you,” Val concluded in the song’s love- and life-affirming message. “He expects you to be real to yourself!”
The point is, A&S have some 20 new songs from the musical in the can, and having seen a run-through of the show for Broadway investors I can say they’re all great! [No! I’m not biased! We’ve gone over this before!] Perhaps “The Real Thing” will lead into a real new Ashford & Simpson album. The audience is certainly there–as is evident in the CD/DVD package–and so are the songs.