Walk sows harmony among Columbia artists, marketers

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Charlie Walk, newly minted exec VP-creative marketing and promotion, Columbia Records Group, believes legitimizing the online music downloading space, as well as setting up alliances with consumer-goods companies, is key to the industry's future. But, he warns, none of it matters unless record labels put supreme commitment toward one thing: making good music and developing artists with staying power.

Record sales are on the rebound. First half 2004 results revealed recently by Nielsen SoundScan show a 7% spike in U.S. recorded music sales compared to the same period last year and digital downloads are on track to break 100 million songs sold this year.

"Why are sales up? Music is still the universal language and a lot of people have fallen in love with it again," Mr. Walk said. "And with the [growing] presence of music online, it's more accessible to the masses. There's more immediate connection which brings more immediate consumption."

The energetic Mr. Walk started his career in 1987 as a college marketing representative in Boston for CBS Records, which was ultimately purchased by Sony Music, the parent company of Columbia.

"My first assignment was to to pick up this new group called New Kids on the Block and try to figure out what to do with them locally," Mr. Walk recalled. "It was amazing and surreal, taking them from local clubs with 25 to 30 people to a year and a half later, being in Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium where they drew 240,000 people in 3 days."

Mr. Walk is as passionate about the business as he was when he started at Columbia proper doing local promotion in 1990 then moved to New York with the company in 1991 to do national promotion. Reporting to Columbia Records Group President Will Botwin, Mr. Walk worked to market and promote artists from Aerosmith and Beyonce to John Mayer and Jessica Simpson.

He's currently putting together a program for Ms. Simpson in partnership with Pepsi-Cola North America, which with Sony has a multiyear overarching co-marketing alliance. Ms. Simpson's new single "Angels" is used in a radio spot that promotes the WB network music series "Pepsi Smash." Pepsi contributed a million dollars in media; the spot pushes the audience to watch her performance on the July 16 edition of "Pepsi Smash."

understanding needs

Katie Lacey, VP-marketing of colas and media, Pepsi-Cola, said, "From our first meeting with Sony, Charlie stood out in a roomful of many as someone who clearly understood not just the music industry but Pepsi and what our needs were."

As for legal downloading, Mr. Walk said Columbia will show no favoritism to sibling music site Sony Connect. "As broadband infiltrates the masses, we will support 100% legal downloading and any company that's involved in it."

Another possible solution, Mr. Walk believes, is Clear Channel with its 1,200 radio stations and Viacom with MTV. Together, they have the power to introduce music and help drive online sales. "They could develop synergy of what's on the screen, which a VJ or host can relate back to a Web site that they create to buy music. ... The good news is that [Apple's] iTunes has done an amazing job, but most people haven't experienced it. There's opportunity to create a wonderful, competitive online environment."

Some, however, still question the future viability of the labels. Legendary music manager Irving Azoff, in an interview with Advertising Age's Madison & Vine [Sept. 3, 2003], said, "The big conglomerates that own these labels are not equipped to be in business with the new model, which is to be in the music business as opposed to just the record business. The new model will have an act going to one entity to own the records together, the touring together, the publishing together, and the merchandising together."

Mr. Walk respectfully disagreed. "It is ever-evolving, but you still need people at the beginning of the day. You still need an army to get to the masses."

Résumé

Name: Charlie Walk

Age: 37

Now: Exec VP-creative marketing & promotion, Columbia Records Group

Who: This tireless Columbia veteran is embracing legal downloading platforms and brand marketers as powerful partners in promoting his artists.

Challenge: To legitimize the online music downloading space and work toward creating a competitive environment online; to develop quality artists with staying power.

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