The following article by Patrick Goldstein appeared in an April 1979 issue of The Los Angeles Times newspaper...
Marketing The Police - Ten years ago, "Support the Police" was a bumper sticker you'd expect to see outside a Ronald Reagan rally. Today the slogan is part of a huge promotional campaign for the police, a sassy trio from A&M Records growling stable of young British rock attractions...
For the L.A. based record label, the stakes of success are high. A&M may spend more than $250,000 to catapult the band's debut album, 'Outlandos d'Amour'; to the top of the charts. Things are going so well that the band will headline 3,000-seat Santa Monica Civic on May 17. Today's music business no longer can afford to run on a wing and a prayer. Many albums now sell more than a million copies and still don't crack the Top 10. At most major record labels, a successful promotional campaign requires the delicacy, sophistication and savvy of the Middle East negotiations.
A look at A&M's Police campaign shattered several current myths. The following now seem to hold true:
Top 40 radio will play new wave rock. KRBE, a Houston Top 40 AM station, was the first major outlet to concentrate on Roxanne, the Police's single. Since then, several other major AM outlets - including Los Angeles' KHJ - have added the song.
Disco and new wave are allies, not enemies. Top 40 and "Album Oriented" radio programmers have shown a greater willingness to play new wave hits as a defence against the meteoric rise of disco.
A young band can tour successfully without going heavily into debt to its record company. The Police avoids deficit financing by travelling by van and staying three to a room in inexpensive hotels.
These innovations would be meaningless unless the Police had one thing going for it all along - the music. The band began in early 1977, the brainchild of American-born drummer Stewart Copeland. By mid-year, the threesome was complete: Sting a lad from Newcastle on bass and vocals; Andy Summers on guitar, and Copeland on drums. Copeland's brother, Miles who'd earned his manager's stripes - handling groups like Wishbone Ash and the Climax Blues Band, guided the group's career.
The Police developed a cult following among England's disaffected youth. Its debut album adeptly captures the group's jagged pop sensibility, offering a captivating blend of sinuous reggae rhythms and delicious pop hooks. Sting's striking vocals are the group's most potent weapon. His undulating tenor caresses the band's taut melodies like a snake winding around its prey.
The record's raffish pop mannerisms attracted A&M's attention. The label's English director, Derek Green (who engineered the company's short-lived Sex Pistols signing), put the band under contract in the spring of 1978. The chart performance of the group's early singles hardly encouraged confidence. Even 'Roxanne', though a critics' favourite, failed to crack the British Top 30. Worse yet, it was banned by the BBC, allegedly for being about a prostitute. The group's follow-up song. 'Can't Stand Losing You' also was blacklisted, this time for being about suicide.
But A&M stuck with the group. Back in Los Angeles Roxanne quickly became a favourite tune on the A&M lot, building a groundswell of in-house support. "Historically, A&M has always found England a tremendous source of innovation," said A&M president Gil Friesen. "English rock is part of our musical roots. This new generation of bands is just a new branch."
"For a group like the Police," Friesen said, "we may spend more than $250,000. Breaking an act is more expensive than ever. All the costs are up. Touring expenses have gone up 30% each year. Studio costs are up, too, even vinyl. It used to be enough to buy an ad in the trades. Now we have to worry about radio and TV, too."
By January, the label's campaign began in earnest. Roxanne was re-released as a single while the artist development department mapped out a lengthy U.S. tour, to begin in March. With radio in mind, A&M began a concerted effort to soften the Police's tough, uncompromising image.
A&M communications director Mike Gormley had misgivings about the group's album cover: "My first reaction was that they'd be unfairly stamped punk. Here their music sounded perfectly mainstream rock and their album looked new wave."
The manager vehemently disagreed: "They look the way everyone in England looks these days," he snapped. "It would be unnatural for them to change the way they dress for American radio programmers." Jeff Ayeroff, A&M's vice president of creative services, let the graphics stand, but he toned down the logo and colours. "We cleaned up the band's image," he admitted. "We made them look more pop and more immediate so that the record could have more of an impact without compromising their image."
Naturally, the manager had little sympathy for A&M's candid but cautious marketing approach. "They wanted to put out ads saying 'the Police are not punk,'" Copeland complained. "Right away I said kill that ad. I'd rather be viewed as punk than as some heavy-metal band." Otherwise, Copeland enjoyed complete co-operation. "We've never had to push A&M to do anything. If anything, we have to hold them back. They get carried away with gimmickry, like paying people's parking tickets (which the label did in Boston as part of a radio promotion) and passing out police whistles. We don't want too much of that."
Police whistles - and other rock junk jewellery - are just the most visible cogs of the star-making machinery. The key ingredient for the campaign is radio. "Advertising just fills in the gaps," said Bob Reitman, the company's vice president of advertising and merchandising. "You don't break an artist with imagery - the music creates that. There's nothing I can do with a record that doesn't have the ingredients to get people to buy it. But when the magic's there, I take advantage of it."
The promotion department had the task of convincing conservative radio programmers to play 'Roxanne'. Fortunately, they had an unwitting ally, the disco phenomenon, which may prove to be the saviour of new wave groups like the Police. Radio, once scornful of new wave artists, is now so fearful of being inundated by the disco explosion that it has expanded its formats to include diverse new talent like the Police, Dire Straits and Elvis Costello. This year's anaemic Hot 100 pinpoints the dilemma. With such a scarcity of mainstream rock, timid programmers must either embrace disco or bring new rock contenders into the fold.
Police has been one of the main beneficiaries of radio's unsettled state. "Radio is really desperate for rock product," said Harold Childs, A&M's senior vice president of promotion. "It's scarce out there. The top 40 stations are being deluged by disco. They're all looking for some white rock'n'roll."
Police's initial champion - WRBE in Houston - also was part of this same disco backlash. "The station's programmer had too much disco on his playlist," assistant national promotion director Larry Green explained. "And he thought 'Roxanne' would be a great alternative. For us. it was a dream story. He just fell in love with the song and started screaming about it." Soon, other stations were on the bandwagon.
A&M's promotion staff predicts that 'Roxanne's' strong airplay will propel 'Outlandos d'Amour' into the Top 10 album bracket, too. This lofty perch may be assured if the album spawns a follow-up hit single. The staff is touting 'Can't Stand Losing You', a lively rocker that will hit the charts when 'Roxanne' begins to slip in popularity. As soon as Roxanne began to gain momentum, A&M brought the band from England for a two-month, 30-date American tour. For most young groups, touring is arduous, enormously expensive and rarely profitable. "Five years ago you could lose $20,000 a month," artist development director Martin Kirkup confessed. "Now the losses have doubled. Everything has increased enormously - travel, hotels and equipment costs. Our bands used to tour constantly. Now we have to decide whether it's worth it.
"American bands often get into so much debt to their labels that they won't see their royalties for years to come," Kirkup reverted. "But the Police tour, as with many English acts, is being run on a break-even basis. They don't want to go into debt."
Also in keeping with the homogenisation campaign, the Police has been booked into showcase clubs in most cities bypassing traditional punk strongholds. The band's manager has serious misgivings about this strategy: "We don't want to abandon our original backers. We want to go back and play those clubs, too. We don't want anyone to think we've forgotten them. Playing big halls isn't the answer either. The booking agent offered us the Alice Cooper tour and you should have seen his face when I turned him down. He wanted to have me committed."
Right now, A&M's campaign has all the makings of a major triumph. The album is selling briskly, its single is climbing the charts, the band has been drawing well. A&M's stiffest challenge will involve sustaining this momentum. The task will be complicated by the Police's often-adversary relationship with its American mentors.
"When we walk into A&M." the manager confided before he left town, "we feel like people from another planet." The sheer scope of the music industry has a tendency to unnerve a young band accustomed to London's more intimate music scene. And like most new wave acts, the Police seems suspicious of the industry's sometimes tawdry value system.
"All this record company cash isn't free," Copeland said. "You spend it on clothes, fancy hotels and limousines and suddenly your values change. It affects your creativity, too. The more money the company spends on us, the more pressure there is for us to come up with a hit single. Before you know it, you've lost everything you stood for. What's the rush? We've got lots of time to lose it."
© The Los Angeles Times