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Digital oldies are golden again

May 9, 2007

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The L.A. Times reports that easy access to vintage hits creates new fans for artists from bygone eras.

That is the case of Frankie Avalon, whose catalogue has been added to the digital music world, thanks to iTunes, RealNetworks Inc.’s Rhapsody and other online stores and subscription services.

Frankie had seen his “Venus” hit No. 1  in the 1950’s and fewer and fewer hits after that, when fans turned to new and vibrant rock ‘n’ roll.

Now, almost 50 years later, his work is paying off again, increasing his royalties in a “significant” amount (he wouldn’t give details) and he’s acquired a new fan base: people whose parents were barely in their teens when his music was popular on transistor radios.

“In the world before digital music, it was very difficult to find my stuff,” Avalon said. “Now anybody can find anything.”

Sales of albums by contemporary musicians have been falling for years, but what the industry calls deep catalog albums (more than 3 years old) have been making a comeback, with their sales soaring 104.2% from 2005 to 2006. That has been a boon for Avalon and other older artists.

Christina Greco, a 24-year-old art student, is one reason. She was impressed by Avalon’s portrayal of Teen Angel in the 1978 movie “Grease” and became a real fan when she learned they both hailed from South Philadelphia.

In the digital age, with a single tune going for under a dollar and a track as accessible as a mouse click, it’s easy to mix and match sounds from different genres and eras.

And playlist-based listening “really benefits those one-hit wonders from bygone days,” said Aram Sinnreich, a managing partner at Radar Research in Los Angeles. For example, you probably wouldn’t stumble on the Norwegian band a-ha’s “Take on Me” in a record store, but there’s a chance you would on the Internet.

Businesses are hustling to cash in, buying old songs they hope will come back in vogue. Sacramento-based Digital Music Group Inc., for one, acquired the rights to distribute 335,000 tracks that had been owned by Chancellor Records.

Some of the master recordings are stored in a climate- controlled warehouse in North Hollywood. Some, such as the 1962 recording “Party Lights” by Claudine Clark, hadn’t seen the light of day in decades. Digital Music Group converts the fragile reel-to-reel tapes to digital, salvaging disintegrating and corroded master recordings and preserving them, the company likes to say, forever.

Chairman Mitch Koulouris, a former Tower Records employee, said Digital Music Group was bringing new music to listeners when there was less and less room for CDs on the shelves of Wal-Mart and Best Buy.

“In many cases, these artists’ life work has been locked up in a vault,” Koulouris said. “Now, they get paid for every single download.”

As more music becomes available digitally, semi-obscure artists are finding they have devoted fans. On Rhapsody, for instance, Top 100 artists produce only 25% of the songs played, said Tim Quirk, Rhapsody’s vice president for music content and programming.

In contrast, nearly half of retail store sales are generated by that elite group. Less popular artists get playtime too — 90% of the 195,200 artists on Rhapsody are played at least once a month.

The 42-year-old Quirk was in a punk-pop group, Too Much Joy, whose albums went out of print in the late 1990s. These days, he’s receiving royalties he never expected and performing in reunion shows. “It’s pretty encouraging to get a monthly check,” he said.

For Ron Dante, “it’s like having a second career.” Dante, 60, was in the Archies, which had the No. 1 single of 1969 with “Sugar, Sugar.” As big as it was, “you would have two or three years” of success in those days, he said, “and then the big-selling years would be over.”

And now? Dante, who was Barry Manilow’s producer and backup singer, performs solo around the country, from Wildwood, N.J., to Las Vegas.

Fabian Forte, a teen idol at 15 who bought out his contract at 18, never imagined that his eight albums, made over 2 1/2 years, would last this long. But after making 29 movies, he’s back on the road performing, often to what he calls a cult of younger people who are into music from the 1950s.

“I feel like it never ended,” he said of his music career. “That never ceases to amaze me.”

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