January 23, 2022

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David Bowie’s Toy story: How Warner Music finally released the rock icon’s lost album | Labels

8 min read

Six years on from the death of David Bowie, there’s a new album of sorts that’s set to make a chart impact. 

Overseen by Rhino and released via Parlophone/ISO, the long-awaited appearance of Toy coincides with the Bowie 75 celebrations for what would have been the late music icon’s 75th birthday (January 8). 

As many fans will know, Toy is the lost album that Bowie recorded in 2000 with his live band following his triumphant Glastonbury performance. The line-up performing includes Mike Garson, Gail Ann Dorsey, Earl Slick and Mark Plati with string arrangements from Tony Visconti.

Finally released on January 7, 2022 in 3CD or six 10” vinyl ‘Toy Box’ editions as well as on digital platforms, the album features Bowie’s reinterpetations of songs he had first recorded from 1964-1971 (a period when Bowie was still developing his artistry with mixed results). The tracklisting includes I Dig Everything, The London Boys and Can’t Help Thinking About Me, which is on the BBC Radio 2 playlist and currently at No.39 on the Radiomonitor airplay chart. 

“It’s great to hear to that album, which didn’t appear at the time, and him revisiting those songs,” said Jeff Smith, head of music at Radio 2. “I think the audience really appreciate that. And he just sounds as timeless as ever.”

A stripped-back version of standout track Shadow Man, first recorded in 1970, has also been released as a streaming single.

As revealed by Music Week research, David Bowie has made a major breakthrough on DSPs and other platforms following his death. He has 16.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify and a Bowie TikTok channel launched last year.

The Legacy collection made No.42 in the year-end Top 100 albums with sales during 2021 of 103,263 (including 85,860 from streams), according to the Official Charts Company. 

With that performance, it’s no surprise that there was huge interest in Bowie’s songwriting catalogue. Warner Chappell secured a deal with the estate at the beginning of 2022, following the Warner Music Group agreement last year for the recording catalogue (the post-2001 albums had been with Sony Music but will move to Warner in 2023).

Since Bowie’s death, Warner Music and Rhino have been active on a successful reissues campaign, the latest of which is the box set Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001). A high-end release in its physical editions, Brilliant Adventure debuted at No.24 last month with sales of 4,130. It now has 7,925 sales thanks to an impressive streaming contribution of 3,552 equivalent chart sales over several weeks.

Here, Rhino/Warner Music director of digital marketing, Tom Gallacher takes Music Week inside the campaign strategy for the much-anticipated Toy album and the latest box set that digs into one of Bowie’s most creative songwriting eras…

Ahead of the Toy release, the Brilliant Adventure box set featuring the album has already had a strong start. You must be pleased with the result for such a premium music release?

“Very much so. Looking at the numbers, it was No.24 at the busiest time of the year. The CD box was £100, the vinyl box was £350 in most places, so it’s very high value. To be able to get a decent chart position was great. Looking at the numbers compared to the previous two boxes, this one did 4.1k [in week one], the previous one did 3.6k and the one before that 3.8k. So it was great to see that we could beat those previous results even though the price of vinyl is up quite significantly. Fans were obviously really keen to get it.”

The ’90s was an interesting creative period for Bowie. Are these albums in the box set – including Outside, Earthling and The Buddha Of Suburbia – ripe for re-discovery?

“Yeah, the previous releases were maybe ones that were more focused around the hits, whereas this is one where people are digging a bit deeper and finding out things they didn’t know before. The fans have been really clamouring for it for the last few years.”

What’s the strategy with this campaign? You included Toy within the deluxe Brilliant Adventure box set last month ahead of the standalone edition of Toy on January 7…

“Yeah, Toy was the one big unreleased piece within [Brilliant Adventure] that everyone is focusing on. Toy is an album that Bowie recorded but never released. He even got to the point of doing the artwork, which is now drawing quite a lot of comments. Everything was all done and dusted, but then it was never actually released, it’s been sitting in the vaults. So that was always going to be part of the set. The plan was always to give Toy its moment, so it was released the day before what would have been Bowie’s 75th birthday on January 8. It’s called the Toy Box, and it has the extra tracks and pieces that he did around the sessions to make it a more complete set.”

Is there much visual material to accompany Toy, seeing as it was unreleased at the time?

“He did actually film some stuff. There have been videos released as part of the campaign. There are also stripped-back sessions he did at the time, which we’re going to be releasing as a YouTube event. January would have been his 75th birthday, so that’s going to be a major celebration. Every year we see a large uptick in Bowie’s streams around the birthday and anniversary [of his death on January 10, 2016]. Last year there was a big focus on it because it was the fifth anniversary of his death. We want to make this much more of a year-long celebration of his life, looking back across the whole of his career, picking out different points. There was also a 50th anniversary picture disc of Hunky Dory [last month]. And then there are various other milestone events during this year such as the 50th anniversary of Ziggy Stardust in June.”

You’ve been embracing TikTok and other platforms for Bowie, how will that continue?

“The TikTok launch last year was a big event for us, we worked closely with TikTok on the David Bowie [channel], which created a whole load of buzz. We’re continuing to look at different ways that we can use archive footage that we’ve got to create new pieces for TikTok. In terms of Toy, there’s a streaming playlist [on DSPs] which has got all the original versions of the tracks alongside the new Toy versions of them, which is going to be a focus for us throughout the period. We will work closely with the estate to try and make sure that we’ve got something that represents his whole career.”

The history of Toy and how it was shelved after being recorded in 2000 is an interesting episode in Bowie’s career. How did its release come about? 

“Nigel Reeve [SVP, content development & marketing, global catalogue at Warner Music], who worked with Bowie for 30 years, is the guardian of the catalogue. It had always been planned and always been talked about that Toy was going to be put out at some point, but it had to be the right time. Brilliant Adventure is part of a series of box sets [covering five Bowie eras so far between 1969 and 2001], so we had got to that point of his career. This was the logical time for it to happen. Obviously there have been various leaks and tracklistings, people have speculated about it. Nigel had spoken to Bowie himself and knew this was exactly the way that he wanted to present it. So this is the culmination of all that work.” 

The artwork on Toy and Brilliant Adventure are Bowie originals, aren’t they?

“Both of them are, yeah. The picture for Brilliant Adventure is something that he drew himself, and the picture of him on the baby’s head was something he’d also worked on himself. It’s quite a striking image and it’s raised a few comments.”

Bowie’s been reaching new fans on DSPs, YouTube and TikTok. Is Brillant Adventure more about the fanbase? 

“I think it is. There’s the super hardcore fanbase who are going to buy the £300 box set and there are the people who know the hits. So, very much of what we focus on is trying to cater for both of those markets, plus everyone in between. Having said that, I was quite pleased with the fact that looking at the digital split on week one [of Brilliant Adventure], it was 16%. So it did actually resonate within streaming as well, it’s not just a piece of vinyl that people put on a shelf. It’s definitely part of a bigger strategy. The 75th anniversary is the more mainstream [element] to chase after the less hardcore fanbase.”

What’s the video element of the campaign?

“There was an extensive upgrade programme that happened across the pre-order period, where we took all the videos from the time and upgraded them to 4K so they’re all on the [YouTube] channel now. The great thing about this period for us is the fact that we did have so much more to work with visually, as opposed to other eras where he just hadn’t done that. And there was a lot of Bowie talking to camera himself, which we were able to use to tell the stories around each of the albums.”

What are the plans for the Bowie pop-up stores?

“The shops are going to stick around for the first few months of the year. The plan is for them to be open for 75 days following his birthday. So that’s something the estate worked with – there’s one in New York and one London. We’ve been heavily involved in that and there’s lots of events happening.” 

Are there any other plans for next year and beyond?

“The 75th is going to be an ongoing campaign. We’re currently working with all the major streaming partners around year-long campaigns involving different elements. As I say, with Bowie there’s always a big anniversary around the corner. We’re now into the period where we’re going to keep on getting these 50th anniversaries, which are obviously big landmark anniversaries of classic albums that continue to be massively popular.”  

Six years after his death, do you think Bowie’s almost more relevant than ever?

“Yeah, I think so. I’ve been working on Bowie for the last seven years. He just seems to get more and more important in a way, everyone is constantly citing him. As part of the 75th birthday, we’ve been working on a series of social content, which is famous fans talking about what Bowie means to them. It’s one of the easiest asks I’ve ever had to make, because people want to talk about him. We’ve got Dave Grohl, Noel Gallagher, Yungblud, Ricky Gervais, Elvis Costello, Bobby Gillespie. It’s an extensive list. And the great thing about him is that he’s not just somebody who influenced music. He influenced culture in so many different ways – he influenced fashion, gender politics and pop. There are various ways that we can tell that story about Bowie.”

With the news recently of Warner partnering with the estate on the entire catalogue, are you looking ahead to those 21st century albums?

“Nigel usually has a plan that’s about five years in advance! The vinyl capacity issue means that we’ve got to plan further ahead – we’re not just thinking about 12 months ahead, we’re looking 18, 24 or 36 months ahead. So there will be plenty more celebrations around all these albums.”

Subscribers can click here for our recent interview with David Bowie’s longtime producer Tony Visconti.

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