Opening his Aug. 5 Chicago concert with two songs from his upcoming "Now" album, Peter Frampton was shouted a demand from a rowdy audience member.
"Play something we know!"
"I've waited for nine years to put this album out so you can put up with a couple of the new songs!" retorted the late 70s rock icon.
The heckler forced what has become part of aging guitarman's concert schtick-playfully working the crowd demanding his hits. He later delivered, with the familiar "Show Me the Way," "Do You Feel Like We Do" and "Baby, I Love Your Way," from his smash 1976 live double album, "Frampton Comes Alive!"
It's a scenario he and other classic rock acts are likely to repeat as they hit the road this summer to promote new studio recordings. Acts like Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, Steely Dan, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young are among the so-called rock geezers that have driven the concert industry for decades and still manage to draw fans despite the lack of mainstream radio airplay. Of the top 50 tours during the first half of 2003, 42% were classic rock acts, according to concert trade magazine Pollstar.
Record charts used to be more of a reflection of an act's popularity on the concert stage, according to Gary Bongiovanni, Pollstar's editor in chief. Now, "It's increasingly two different businesses," he said. "Even Bruce Springsteen doesn't get much airplay off `The Rising,' but plenty of people are crawling over themselves to see him. Sometimes it comes down to pure showmanship."
That's one reason why Viacom's VH1 Classic agreed to sponsor Frampton's Now tour. "When it comes to guitar gods of the `70s and live albums, the first name that comes to mind is Peter Frampton," said Eric Sherman, general manager VH1 Classic. The three-year-old cable channel has had surprising success with its Journey/Styx/REO Speedwagon tour, which has ranked 19th of the Pollstar's top 50 tours so far this year.
For many of the fans that attended Mr. Frampton's suburban Chicago show, their thirst for classic rock music is still strong. Steve Ames and Jason Thodos, a pair of 43-year-olds from Wheeling, Ill., attended looking for nostalgia but also the kind of music they like. "The big difference between that era and now is all the good songs," said Mr. Thodos, who now tends to listen to bands like Wilco. "There's no album-oriented rock anymore."
Mr. Frampton's most famous album sold an unprecedented 8 million copies in its first year and ushered in an era of arena rock where acts were expected to sell out 50,000-seat football stadiums.
To date, the album has sold 18 million copies, making it one of the top-selling albums in recording history. But his 1977 follow-up, "I'm In You" sold 3 million copies, and was deemed a flop. His career spiraled into an abyss from which he's taken more than 20 years to recover. While Mr. Frampton is optimistic his new album will sell well, it won't come even close to what his "flop" sold.
"Realistically, we're not going to sell millions," Mr. Frampton said. "A couple hundred thousand ... that's what it looks like." His experience in trying to promote new material is illustrative of the challenges nostalgia acts often face in a market where mainstream radio play is largely reserved for current pop artists and classic rock stations use a small percent of their airtime to play new music.
"Frampton is in the position that many, many superstars of the `70s are in," said Joe Levy, music editor for Rolling Stone. "They're going to be best loved by critics and audiences for the music they made 25 years ago." Given the relatively tepid demand for Frampton news, he wasn't sure whether the magazine would review the "Now" album. "I wouldn't call it an impossibility but given the volume of records we have to review, it's not a guarantee," he said.
"The bottom line is I can't continue giving them the nostalgia if I don't grow as an artist," said Mr. Frampton, a 53-year-old, a former curly-haired pinup now turned balding and gray. "I'm sort of the anti-image guy now," he said. "I dress the way that is most comfortable, usually a T-shirt and a pair of jeans. There is no package for me. I'm going back to what was underneath the satin pants."
But getting to the Aug. 26 release of "Now" has been a long process. Although he has actively toured or recorded for all but seven of the last 27 years, the once world-famous guitarist has done so in relative obscurity to all but his most die-hard fans. When he was ready to record again, he couldn't find a label to back him.
Since he was building a new studio in his home, he decided to fund a record on his own and started a recording unit under his Framptone company that sells amp switchers and the talkbox he made famous. In 2001, he teamed with 33rd Street Records, a small label owned by Tower Records and whose roster includes The Eagles, Sammy Hagar and Pete Sears from Jefferson Airplane. In the deal, Mr. Frampton has complete control over the material and owns the masters. "He has significant fan base and touring base and he has a strong brand name," said Morty Wiggins, president of 33rd Street Records. "We're confident Peter can make great music in 2003."
help from VH1
Backed with traditional record promotion, the label is getting additional visibility from the VH1 Classic tour begun Aug. 30. The Viacom-owned cable channel is supporting the tour with a house-produced TV spot, radio promotions with ticket giveaways, promotional items and an online sweepstakes at vh1classic.com with the grand prize tickets to Mr. Frampton's Los Angeles tour date. On Aug. 24, Mr. Frampton co-hosted the channel, which aired his 2000 "Live in Detroit" DVD.
Mr. Frampton and 33rd Street are handling the guitar player and fan promotion, with radio performances, giveaways, print ads and equipment contests in guitar magazines and on Web sites. "We work with a lot of independent marketing companies," said Amy Turner, marketing director/product manager for 33rd Street. Online media shop Tattoo Media, Los Angeles, worked with radio promoters to seed 90 radio, guitar and fan Web sites and others to do email updates. "We're also doing a contest on Towerrecords.com," she said. Barter time worth $100,000 was garnered by Entertainment Marketing Group, Santa Monica, Calif.
The label also is producing a TV spot created by TourDesign, a Fishers, Indiana-based unit of Clear Channel Entertainment, to air in 20 cable markets (about $100,000 media buy) to drive retail sales. "The only way you can use TV effectively for music is when you have a familiar act or song," said Mr. Wiggins. "Doing a $100,000 TV buy is significant for a record shipping the amount of units [Mr. Frampton] has." For now, a music video is not cost-effective, nor is general-market print.
"We found out how much a strip ad in People costs," said Mr. Frampton. "That's our entire print budget, so that puts more responsibility on me for promoting and doing more radio stations." Among his more high-profile public relations efforts is an early September feature on NBC's "Today Show," including an in-studio performance.
Already, the album has eclipsed its original goals of charting a track on the classic rock charts and shipping 50,000 units, according to Mr. Wiggins. "We've placed two songs in the top 10 and they spin so few new records, it's very unusual to have two songs in the top 10," he said.
Heavy radio rotation of the classic rock format is a couple times per day, according to Mr. Wiggins, who said the peak is 300 to 350 spins per week. He estimates Mr. Frampton's songs are played between 150 to 200 times a week on classic rock stations and will help solidify a listener base for him. "That's why the classic rock format isn't as aggressively worked by major labels," he said. "They don't spin enough to sell the units they need."
"What people forget," said Rolling Stone's Mr. Levy, is that mass fame "is an extremely rare opportunity-to get your music heard, to get up in front of a huge audience and to command that kind of attention. ... It's not designed as a long-term career. I'm not saying that's fair, but most people knew that when they were getting in."