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Blame Rock River Communications -- and hipster Jeff Daniel -- for those cheesy store-branded music compilations

Wednesday, May 22 2002
Jeff Daniel's office has all the trappings of a home-grown music label or independent college radio station. Thousands of CDs line the walls, interspersed with concert posters and rock 'n' roll memorabilia, while a cushy, multicolored couch beckons nearby. For his part, Daniel fits the prototypical image of the indie-music aficionado, with his goatee, silver hoop earrings, and laid-back work attire of a worn hooded sweat shirt and cargo pants. On the back of his hand he sports a stamp from a show at Bimbo's the night before.

Then Daniel reveals the awful truth. "Basically," he says, "I have fully sold out."

He hands over a stack of CDs issued by Rock River Communications, the company for which he serves as general manager. The albums have titles like Margarita Mix and Tiki Rhythms and Salty and Oh-So-Summer, names that sound as blandly commercial as Pottery Barn's Americana Party Bucket or J. Crew's Preppy Stripe Polo. Like a mirror image of those late-night commercials advertising compilations "not sold in stores," these CDs are sold only in stores -- that is, Restoration Hardware, Banana Republic, Old Navy, and Lane Bryant, their company names prominently displayed on the album covers.

"People are in the store, and they like the lifestyle of being in a Pottery Barn, however weird that may sound," Daniel explains, his boyish voice slipping into a more businesslike tone. "They like to walk around in there with the stuff that's two grand, but they end up walking out with a candle and, like, a napkin. But for 15 bucks, sitting on the counter, is music. It's an easy way for them to take the ambience home."

It's not Pottery Barn compiling the music -- it's Daniel and Rock River, which bills itself as "the premier provider of branded media solutions." For those who don't speak corporate, that means the company produces prefabricated soundtracks that complete the lifestyle package for chain-store devotees. Although the 33-year-old Daniel hardly looks plucked from the pages of an Eddie Bauer catalog, it's his job to predict which tunes will sound perfect beneath Eddie Bauer's patio Sunbrella (that would be Eddie Bauer's Tropical Nights, which contains such hula-rific hits as Blood, Sweat & Tears' "You've Made Me So Very Happy" and the Isley Brothers' "Summer Breeze"). Rock River is bedside at the increasingly cozy marital union of music and marketing -- and Daniel's supplying the lube.

Rock River isn't a large company, although it raked in over $8 million in wholesale revenue last year. Founded in New York in 1995 by current CEO Billy Straus, the business has just nine employees, split between an East Coast and a West Coast office. Even with such a small work force, Rock River has issued nearly 90 compilations for 25 different clients in the past seven years. This spring alone, Daniel and his staff will compile 15 end-of-the-year holiday CDs.

A firm like Rock River needs someone who knows a lot about music, and Daniel's background as both a musician and a record-industry insider ensures he's not clueless. After graduating in 1991 with a degree in business administration from Brown University in Providence, R.I., Daniel scored a job reissuing material from EMI's back catalog; at the same time, his band, Action Figures, nabbed an East Village rehearsal space down the hall from Sonic Youth, the Beastie Boys, and Helmet. (Daniel's framed Alice in Chains and Ozzy Osbourne photos betray his metalhead past, although he says he listens to lots of emo and trip hop nowadays.)

From there Daniel moved to Entertainment Weekly magazine, where he learned the ropes of music licensing while producing compilation CDs as incentives for customers to buy subscriptions. Just about anyone who watches late-night television knows Daniel's work: He was responsible for tepid infomercial offerings like Hot Dance Mix and Pure Party, which prompted many a TV viewer to ask, "Who buys those things?"

In 1997 Daniel began consulting for Rock River, and as the company got off the ground, he found himself transforming from rock 'n' roll ideologue to corporate sellout. While he once passed the Beastie Boys in the halls with the awe-struck admiration of a fan, he soon began wondering if the musicians would consider licensing any of their songs to him.

"At some point, it gets less interesting to live out of a van while playing gigs at Phinneas T. Flubberbuster's or wherever," Daniel says. "I love playing music, but I have friends who have had major label deals, and where are they now? They're waiters or they're selling dope, because they all got dropped."

One way Daniel justifies his career switch is by insisting that choosing tracks for J. Crew's Getaway album satisfies his artistic urges. "This is a great creative outlet musically," he says, "to be able to choose what music all these people across the country are listening to and to expose them to stuff they wouldn't otherwise hear."

When a client comes to Rock River requesting a compilation, Daniel and his two-person San Francisco staff make what they call a "pitch CD" -- downloading MP3s, drawing from the albums lining the walls, and burning the mix on a Macintosh G4. If the client likes the proposal, Rock River tries to get permission from the acts and labels.

Licensing, Daniel says, was much more difficult seven years ago, before artists like Lenny Kravitz, Sting, and Moby began selling just-released songs for commercials, evincing an "everyone should hear it" philosophy in line with Daniel's.

"A lot of people are buying these, and I don't think there's as much shame in it," Daniel says. "We're not selling to those kids out there who are searching the Web for MP3s and burning their own compilations. These are people who used to buy a lot of music in record stores, but now they would just be overwhelmed to walk into Amoeba. We're hitting them up when they're shopping for coffee or clothing or furniture and saying, "Hey, we'll make the editorial choices for you.'"

But Rock River's CDs aren't aimed only at the over-30 crowd that frets in sprawling record shops. The Structure compilation, adorned with a generically hip geometric-box design equally suited to the frat boy T-shirts the store sells, serves up songs by somewhat alternative acts like Stereolab and the Style Council. With tracks from Moby and Bentley Rhythm Ace, the J. Crew compilation Getaway takes the young-and-carefree image even further. The album's cover artwork, chosen by the retailer to reflect its catalog, suggests that if listeners want to have as much fun as that cowboy-hatted gal in the back of the pickup truck, they'll need a J. Crew soundtrack to make their road trip complete. (An adorable little ruffled top wouldn't hurt either.)

Daniel insists he's performing a service for these younger listeners, too, exposing them to music they won't hear on the radio. As Daniel points out, MTV rarely shows videos anymore, and mainstream magazines and radio seldom showcase lesser-known artists.

But while retailers may offer occasional songs from obscure artists, as a rule Rock River's compilations contain music that's standard fare on oldies radio. Pottery Barn's Tiki Rhythms includes Harry Belafonte singing "Banana Boat (Day-O)," while that chain's Cocktail Lounge features Mel Tormé, Wayne Newton, and Della Reese -- none of whom is exactly an icon of the musical underground.

Dean Suzuki, an associate professor of music at San Francisco State University and the host of an experimental-music show on Berkeley's KPFA-FM (94.1), says CDs like Rock River's generally cater to customers' previously established tastes.

"Those things tend to be geared toward baby boomers, and their tastes are already kind of calcified," says Suzuki, who's a member of the postwar generation himself. "If they get those compilations, it might broaden their exposure a little bit. But if it's at Pottery Barn, it's probably not going to be very hip. It's just kind of pandering to the contented."

Even Daniel is occasionally confounded by his company's good fortunes. "I'm amazed by the number of Rock River CDs that I see in people's collections," he says. "I'm like, 'Wow, you've got five of our Christmas CDs. What could you do with another Nat King Cole song?'"

He also admits that he's somewhat conflicted about what he does for a living. He remembers putting together a Pottery Barn CD called Reggae Rhythms. One of the tunes that made the final cut was Blondie's "The Tide Is High," a remake of a '60s reggae song. "I went back and listened to it, and I was like, 'Oh, it's so white and so pop,'" he groans. But when he saw someone pick up the CD and exclaim, "Oh, I love 'The Tide Is High,'" Daniel figured the white-bread cover might be a good way to get someone interested in the album. (Then, by buying the compilation, consumers could come to understand the true Rastafarian experience, listening to Peter Tosh sing "Here Comes the Sun" by those bastions of Jamaican music, the Beatles.)

Daniel, however, still adheres to the ideal that if one track on a Rock River CD turns a customer on to a new artist, he's done his job. "They maybe pick up Pottery Barn's Margarita Mix because it's a nice piece of artwork and they like the Latin music they hear in the store," Daniel says. "And if they take that home and they get into Tito Rodriguez and buy a Tito Rodriguez album, then that's cool. That's really neat."

Of course, it's more likely that the kind of people who'd trust a clothing store to choose their music are just looking for the perfect background music for their dinner party rather than for inspiration. What if the consumer simply says, "I like track No. 1," and never gives the artist a second thought?

"So they're listening to good music at home and they don't know what it is," Daniel shrugs. "At least they're not cranking Amy Grant."

About The Author

Nancy Einhart


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