LONDON — Elvis Costello strikes twice. For the second time this year, Costello is executing a bit of "guerrilla marketing," as he calls it, to boost attention for his Warner Bros. album All This Useless Beauty. The acclaimed British singer/song-writer considers the album one of his finest works, yet he believes it has been ill-served by conventional music marketing methods on either side of the Atlantic.
At Costello's initiative, Warner Bros. is due to release Dec. 3 an unusual and limited-edition boxed set of five CD maxi-singles (or EPs, as Costello prefers to describe them). Each contains five songs recorded during radio broadcasts in five cities where Costello and Steve Nieve of the Attractions performed acoustic sets this past spring. The repertoire includes not only songs from All This Useless Beauty but a range from Costello's past work, often in dramatically new arrangements. Material from the as-yet-untitled boxed set was serviced during August and September as promo CDs to stations in cities where the broadcasts were taped. At press time, the label was still determining whether the set would be released outside the U.S.
The release follows a striking marketing move by Costello in Britain this summer. To coincide with a series of shows in London, and again at the initiative of the artist, WEA Records in the U.K. released one limited-edition Costello single each week for four weeks during July. Along with album versions of songs from All This Useless Beauty, the singles featured live versions from the American acoustic shows and, most notably, interpretations of Costello's songs by Lush ("All This Useless Beauty"), Sleeper ("The Other End Of The Telescope"), Tricky ("Distorted Angel"), and DJ Food ("Little Atoms").
The Lush recording also appears on "You Bowed Down," one of two singles Costello has out in America. (The other is his collaboration with Burt Bacharach on "God Give Me Strength" from the MCA soundtrack album Grace Of My Heart.)
The album All This Useless Beauty was released in the U.S. by Warner Bros. May 14 and spent six weeks on The Billboard 200, peaking at No. 53. It has sold 85,000 units, according to SoundScan.
"I'm very proud of these songs, and I think they stand squarely with the best things I've ever done," says Costello. "At the same time, I know the [music marketing] game is set up against me in a number of different ways to do with age, image, the way [radio] is formatted, and I don't think you can accept that as the final judgment. You've got to be more ingenious."
In late May, Costello returned to his home in Ireland from his acoustic tour of the States and discovered that the U.K. release of All This Useless Beauty had "gone off kind of flat," he recalls. He was particularly dismayed at the lack of support from BBC Radio 1 FM and has criticized the station's music selection policy and its dominant position in U.K. pop radio. None of the singles from All This Useless Beauty were added to the Radio One playlist, although the indie-oriented Evening Session program gave some exposure to the limited-edition EPs.
"Elvis' market is getting older," says Trevor Dann, head of production at Radio 1 FM. "Our target demographic is 15- to 24-year-olds. If Elvis thinks his music is playlist material for people of that age, I think he's wrong. I'm very proud of the decisions that our producers make, and I don't inflect my views on them," says the 44-year-old Dann. "If the radio station reflected my personal tastes, it would be Lyle Lovett, Neil Young, and, dare I say, Elvis Costello all day."
With his London tour dates looming, Costello recalls that he "hatched this plan" for the limited-edition EPs at 6 a.m. the day of his return from the States. The first of the singles, "Little Atoms," was released little more than a month later. He chose his collaborators "because they were bands that were right in public view, and I felt they might have some sympathy with these particular songs. I was really quite prepared for all of these versions to almost obliterate any sense of my originals. It was almost like a pop art project in which I deconstructed my own music and invited others to do likewise."
Costello adds, "We weren't looking for radio play. It was sort of saying, 'If you've decided to ignore me, I'll ignore you right back.' "
He says that Phil Straight, director of international artist development at WEA U.K., "did a lot of great work seeing it through, and I think we saw it through in style."
Straight calls the project "a very Elvis Costello thing to do, very artistic and creative and unusual. From our end, it was a bit of an achievement and a great rush of excitement to do it all. We needed some profile building, and this put him back in the public eye."
Retailers in Britain also responded enthusiastically. "The singles did very well," says Andy Powell, singles buyer at HMV U.K.'s head office. "They were intended as limited-edition, but they were exceedingly limited. All of the singles sold out in the week of release at our stores."
Costello may hope for similar retail interest in his upcoming boxed set in the U.S., and once again he has challenged his record company to respond to his "guerrilla marketing" ideas.
"I've never been content to deliver a record to the front door and have it come out the back," he says. "At the same time I was hatching these EP shenanigans in London, I had left Warner Bros. in Burbank [Calif.] with a whole stack of radio recordings, from which I very quickly selected the highlights."
The five CD maxi-singles were recorded for broadcast from the Troubadour in Los Angeles, the Fillmore in San Francisco, the Supper Club in New York, the Paradise in Boston, and Park West in Chicago. While the final track listing may change, highlights of the set are expected to include a seven-minute version of "Alison" with a medley of Smokey Robinson songs; a similarly extended version of "My Dark Life," which Costello originally recorded with Brian Eno; and, from the San Francisco show, "Ship Of Fools," which Costello originally released on the Grateful Dead tribute album Deadicated.
With projects like these, Costello is seizing the creative initiative in a music business where he believes conventional marketing methods and resources have failed to serve artists like himself. "One of the grave mistakes that has been made by the record industry is that they have ceded far much too much middle ground between themselves and the audience to consultants and tip sheets—all of which have a role to play, but it doesn't mean it's the ideal reality," he says.
"I've very rarely tended to talk like this, and this is not a crying-in-your-beer situation," he says. "But I think the industry has made it impossible for bands to go forward into the age that we are now, unless they want to be grand old men taking laps of honor. There doesn't seem to be any will to allow and encourage [older] bands who genuinely want to do new stuff."
That will not keep Costello from pursuing a range of new musical paths. While Warner Bros. is due to release a home video of a recent BBC2 television retrospective of Costello's career, he has additional collaborations planned with classical musician John Harle, the Jazz Passengers, the Brodsky Quartet, Bacharach, and others.
"There are all these things flying off in different directions for me, which, far from being dilettantish as some cynical people like to think, is the way I work. This is what I do," says Costello. "I am interested in all these things, and I'm passionate about each of them in turn."