Monday, August 30, 2010

Pussycat Dolls turn burlesque club act into child's play

NEW YORK — When Robin Antin, a Los Angeles choreographer, decided 11 years ago to assemble a burlesque-inspired nightclub revue, she called it the Pussycat Dolls as a tip of the hat to her vision of "making everyone look like a real, living doll."
Interscope Records is taking her words literally.
The label, which, along with Antin,redesigned the act as an R&B-influenced pop group and released its debut CD last year, has struck a deal with Hasbro, the toy maker, to create a line of fashion dolls modeled on its six members. The toy line - designed to mimic the act's playfully risqué style - is expected to be on sale by this year's holiday season. Hasbro executives estimate that the dolls, intended for children from 6 to 9, will carry a retail price of about $14.99, with the label receiving a royalty on sales.
The deal is just one example of how record companies are seeking revenue- sharing arrangements that encompass far more than CDs.
With album sales on the decline, labels are pressing to receive a cut of artists' concert earnings, merchandise sales and corporate advertising fees. Last year, for example, EMI agreed to pay about $25 million to buy an estimated 30 percent stake in the business generated by the rock band Korn.
Interscope has been aggressive in developing new avenues of business that extend beyond the customary ticket sales and T-shirts, two of the biggest moneymakers for many artists, through a slate of recent arrangements.
The label, a unit of Vivendi Universal, struck a unique deal with Antin in 2003 in which the two sides split the profit from all the act's ventures. Since then,the Pussycat Dolls name has landed on a cosmetics line from the Stila unit of Estée Lauder and on a nightclub at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
The toy line, however, reflects perhaps the most ambitious effort yet to generate extra revenue since the group achieved mainstream success. Managing to score at toy retailers would also illustrate how elastic the aura of a manufactured pop act can be, as the Pussycat Dolls straddle the image of late-night lounge dancers and kid- friendly pop singers at the same time.
Interscope's foray into the toy market comes as young children are becoming an important audience for the recording industry. Music executives have been eager to appeal to fans who (they hope) are too young to download music illegally, and children are making their presence known on the Billboard sales chart in the United States.
The soundtrack to the Disney Channel TV movie "High School Musical" has emerged as a bona-fide hit, while "Kidz Bop 9," the most recent installment of a popular sing-along series, recently posted the biggest first-week sales of any album in the franchise.
The Pussycat Dolls certainly did not start with an innocent image. Interscope signed the group after the label's chairman, Jimmy Iovine, saw their nightclub act at the suggestion of Gwen Stefani, a singer on the label who did her own turn performing with the dance troupe. The group stormed the charts in August with its first big single, "Don't Cha," a steamy tease that included the lyric, "Don't cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me/Don't cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?"
But the act's next song, "Stickwitu," was a softer ballad that attracted airplay on kid-friendly outlets like Radio Disney. Since the group's album, "PCD," hit stores last year, it has sold more than 1.3 million copies in the United States alone, according to Nielsen SoundScan data.
Ron Fair, the head of Interscope's A&M Records unit and one of the album's main producers, said the act's more mature image was an asset in appealing to a wider audience.
"When you're dealing with children," he said, "if you shoot for that mode in the music you create, it's very, very difficult for it to translate up. Once it's branded as a tween thing, it's very hard to flip it up. But what the older sister and older brother like definitely trickles down to the kids. That's what's happening to the Pussycat Dolls." Tween is a term that U.S. marketers use to describe those between childhood and adolescence.
Hasbro recognized that dynamic from the outset. Sharon John, the company's general manager for marketing, said she first talked with Interscope executives while "Don't Cha" reigned as the act's first hit. Hasbro executives viewed the Pussycat Dolls as a line that could sell to the same audience of young girls that have gobbled up the Bratz, a line of fashion dolls with curvy figures and coy smiles from a rival, MGA Entertainment.
John conceded that the Pussycat Dolls packaging might be edgy for Hasbro consumers. "Bratz has pushed the envelope in this area and has been extraordinarily successful," she said. "I don't think we're trying to push the envelope any further, but we're trying to add an aspect of realism. These are people that have real careers."
John added that the company sought an alliance with the pop act while it appeared ascendant. "Most of the time, the toy item for Britney Spears, N Sync,is past the success of the act, way down the line. It's really the last thing they think of. We looked at it as, let's not wait for the Pussycat Dolls to become big hits and we take the tail end of the value chain."
As a result, the record label and toy maker are drawing up plans for a series of marketing tie-ins. While the plans are still under discussion, the campaign is expected to involve the release later this year of a new Pussycat Dolls song that would double as a theme for the toy line's advertising, and probably wind up on a future CD release. The fashion dolls might be packaged with a code used to download an exclusive version of the song.
Universal Music Group, the parent company of Interscope, had already been focusing on the children's market through a similar route: releasing CDs branded by the Bratz. The company has released "Genie Magic," an album linked to a new Bratz DVD. Universal's earlier Bratz album, "Rock Angelz," released last summer, has sold an estimated 255,000 copies. But the music company has no share of the actual toy sales.
Interscope's pact with Hasbro provides a glimpse of how the label, based in Santa Monica, California, aims to stretch the revenue-sharing concept even further. Interscope executives are working to produce their own television series. One of them will be based on the Pussycat Dolls and overseen by McG, the former video director who also directed the movie "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle." The company is also examining a publishing venture.
"We're not going to limit ourselves to only traditional and new digital models for selling music," said Steve Berman, the label's president of sales and marketing. "We're going to look at every artist as a unique and special brand and look at what business relationships we can get into."
He said that some artists might generate no business opportunities beyond music, but that for others, "the doors are completely open."

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