Music sales are tough. So how did The Great New Zealand Songbook go triple platinum?
When I enter his office Murray Thom is on the phone, talking nine-to-the-dozen at a desk looking across a rainy Auckland Harbour vista. Wheeling and dealing—it seems to be a phrase well suited to a man who has concocted and marketed music projects with verve and vision for the best part of 30 years.
As goes with people who clearly love what they do, Thom doesn’t have a noticeable trace of cynicism from his long career in a famously cynical industry. But there lies the dichotomy of Thom. He’s in the business of music, and at the same time not just another cog in the music industry. He’s a marketing guru but simultaneously a wide-eyed music fan from the ’burbs who just likes putting out stuff he’s passionate about.
Thom’s cross-pollination projects have seen him forge a niche in bespoke music-meets-visual art that doesn’t particularly pay credence to the dog-eat-dog world of quickfire, mass-market music releases. A cynical ploy itself, perhaps? Nah. “We just wanted to create something magnificent,” Thom says cheerily.
The ten-CD Together project of 2002 was a re-recorded consolidation of pianist Carl Doy’s Piano By Candlelight and guitarist Martin Winch’s Espresso Guitar—each previously released by Thom—with the production and sound beefed-up with the introduction of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and then coupled with photography from the renowned M.I.L.K collection. It may appear to be a carefully thought-out package, but Thom modestly says it was more a series of happy accidents that brought all the elements together “and makes us look a lot smarter than we are”.
Accidents, of course, happen to people in the right place at the right time. Thom puts himself in fate’s path. As befits this keen sailor, he lets the wind take him to his next destination, wherever or whatever that may be.
He started out in in sales at CBS Records (now Sony Music). When managing director and mentor John McCready left to head up Aussie operations, he promoted Thom to be his successor. Twenty-three, and MD of a major label. Not only was he the youngest person in the office (much to the chagrin of his colleagues at the time), he also became the youngest to head a major label office anywhere in the world. And it’s this first act of good fortune that characterises much of how Thom has operated. CBS led to other opportunities, which in turn led to other opportunities and so on. Thom seized on each one and made a success of it.
Which brings us to his latest success, The Great New Zealand Songbook (Buy@Fishpond). In late July, sales of the double-CD compilation reached triple platinum status in an environment where big sales numbers are difficult to garner. In fact, for a compilation album to sell these types of quantities outside of the Christmas sales period is a rare feat. It certainly answers the first question I had when hearing of the project—will anyone buy yet another collection of Kiwi classics? The answer was a resounding yes, but Thom is quick to name his points of difference as to why exactly that might be the case.
Songbook’s nearest cousin is the ‘Nature’s Best’ collection (coincidentally, also distributed by Sony Music). But, Thom says, those songs were thrown together by a voting system that meant the tracklist didn’t exactly gel. Songbook has a more considered tracklist designed to flow more evenly. You get some overlooked gems such as Neil Finn’s ‘Sinner’ (“My personal all-time favourite Neil Finn track,” says Thom) and the late Hirini Melbourne’s ‘Tihore Mai’ recorded by Moana and the Tribe, sitting alongside more obvious tracks such as ‘Whaling’, ‘Dominion Road’ and ‘April Sun In Cuba’.
As I wrote in Idealog last year, lists of great songs need updating from time-to-time, and Thom has hit the refresh button by splitting the collection into ‘Last Century’ and ‘This Century’ so that more recent pearlers such as Liam Finn’s ‘Better To Be’ and Anika Moa’s ‘Dreams In My Head’ get a look-in.
Clearly though, the most obvious point of difference is the packaging. A thoughtfully crafted, hardback book presented in a case, fronted by a specifically commissioned, guitar-slinging version of Dick Frizzell’s icon-within-an-icon, Mr 4 Square (as a sidenote, there is a brilliant juxtaposition of photos of Mr 4 Square and Dave Dobbyn in rock pose).
“Twenty-three, and MD of a major label. Thom became the youngest to head a major label office anywhere in the world. CBS led to other opportunities, which in turn led to other opportunities. He seized on each one and made a success of it”
The attention to detail is superb, such as the CD pockets designed as mock-library cards, stamped with the dates of release of each song. The concept of a journey through both our physical and musical landscape is enhanced by the accompanying website, www.greatnewzealandsongbook.co.nz.
The content itself consists of handwritten lyrics and notes, mementos and photographs from the artists involved. Thom credits Brooke Fraser for setting the standard. “Brooke gave us so much gold. We call Songbook a journal, and it was that personal aspect that we were after. Brooke gave us so many gems and snapshots of her life and inspiration behind the song. When we saw that, we said, ‘That’s what we want!’ and sent that artwork and the others that followed to everyone else so they could see what we were trying to accomplish.”
This is where Songbook takes a massive stride into its own special niche. It’s not low-cost, consumable music to be ripped, listened to and then left on a shelf. The package’s rich, value-added content demands something to be cherished and retained as a keepsake. It’s also important to note that elevating the packaging from merely ‘music plus some bonus stuff’ to a genuine music/book hybrid doubles the distribution channels, allowing Songbook to be stocked in bookstores (which can be traditionally a bit sniffy about stocking music albums).
The ‘Together’ collection (“If I could only give one gift this year, this would be it”, said Oprah Winfrey) and its 2004 successor ‘Miracle’ (a collaboration of Anne Geddes’ photography and Celine Dion’s music that sold 2.5 million copies worldwide) could be said to have a very broad audience appeal in other territories, which does beg the question as to whether something as overtly Kiwi as Songbook is somewhat limited in its audience?
Not so, says Thom, who has his eye firmly on the expat and OE market. “There are 750,000 Kiwis living overseas—we think we can sell a huge amount of product to New Zealanders living abroad.” As well as homesick New Zealanders, Songbook justifies that old marketing cliché ‘the perfect gift’, and Thom remarks that many local sales have come from repeat purchases—something of an endangered species in the digital file-sharing age.
Speaking of digital, I asked Thom what his take is on the modern music industry, especially as someone who has had a box seat for the last 30 years. “By far the most successful business model is iTunes. There’s no question that digital music is the future.” But rather than see this as a threat, Thom goes back to first principles: “You’re always going to have a music industry, and always going to have people who want to buy music. How they choose to have it delivered to them and the price they are prepared to pay for it—those are always the key questions.”
Still, Thom has shown that there’s more than one way to sell music, and that people will still buy great music in a beautiful package. Whether the future continues to make projects like Songbook viable remains to be seen, but whatever form music takes, Murray Thom will put his own unique twist on it.