Published today at the Wall Street Journal online and in print : http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304448204579181870960653510
No More Crying Over Roy Orbison
21 albums by the late singer-songwriter are to come out in the next two years.
Nov. 7, 2013 10:08 p.m. ET
Rock legend Roy Orbison died a quarter of a century ago, but the next two years may be his biggest yet.
RAPID-FIRE: The late singer’s record-release plan outpaces convention. Rex Features/Everett Collection
Mr. Orbison’s three living sons—Alex, Roy and Wesley—plan to release 21 records by their father over the next two years, including four studio albums that were never released and 13 that have been out of print for decades.
The Orbisons’ rapid-fire release plan flies in the face of conventional catalog-selling wisdom, which suggests that musical legends should issue only one box set or live album every six months to a year—just enough to keep fans sated and maintain steady sales. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Mr. Orbison’s death in 1998, for example, one record label bundled CDs with replicas of Mr. Orbison’s signature sunglasses.
But the Orbisons are taking a riskier tack that they believe will generate three to four times more revenue for their father’s catalog than the slow-and-steady release method. They plan to put out the new albums in roughly chronological order, slotting them into a narrative about the singer’s life, with each issue teasing to the next to hook fans.
Members of the family say they are considering investing in the creation of a film or a Broadway show, aiming to replicate the success of musicals based on the work of the Four Seasons and the rock songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.
To execute the plan, the Orbisons had to renegotiate the terms of their deals with Vivendi SA’s Universal Music Group and Sony Corp.’s Sony Music Entertainment last year, following the death of their mother, Barbara. Chuck Fleckenstein, a former Sony executive who has overseen catalogs of Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and others, now works for the Orbisons’ company, Roy’s Boys LLC.
Mr. Fleckenstein drafted the new agreements under which Roy’s Boys will put up the lion’s share of the marketing money for the 21-release blitz, and will share in the profits. Under the old agreements, the record companies paid for all of marketing and received most of the profits from record sales, while the Orbisons collected only royalty fees.
“We had to convince them this was better for all parties,” said Mr. Fleckenstein, adding that the big record companies no longer have the resources to execute elaborate marketing programs on their own, with revenues down 70% from their peak.
Born in Vernon, Texas, in 1936, Mr. Orbison formed his first band at the age of 13. His lush, lilting voice spanned several octaves, and he recorded for a handful of record companies throughout his career. Following successful stints with Sun Records in the 1950s and Monument Records, where he recorded hits like “Oh, Pretty Woman” and “Only the Lonely” in the 1960s, the singer-songwriter signed in 1965 with MGM records, now part of Universal Music. There, he recorded 13 albums over eight years, but most of those were either not released or went quickly out of print. One of the reasons the records vanished, according to Mr. Fleckenstein: MGM owned only the North American rights to Mr. Orbison’s work, while Mr. Orbison retained the international rights, making the singer’s work less lucrative to release for the company.
“My dad grew disenchanted with the label and eventually left,” said Alex Orbison, 39, adding that he considers the shelved albums top-notch, “not outtakes and rejects.” Universal declined to comment.
Mr. Orbison’s personal life unraveled while he was under contract at MGM. His first wife, Claudette, was killed in a motorcycle crash in 1966, and two of his sons died in a house fire several years later. But his career rebounded in the 1980s. He moved from Nashville to Malibu, Calif., and landed two Grammy Awards and a spot in the Rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame, while artists such as Linda Ronstadt and Van Halen covered his hits on best-selling records. In 1988 he joined George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan to form a successful supergroup called the Traveling Wilburys. His 1989 solo album, “Mystery Girl,” released by Virgin Records three months after his death of a heart attack, became his best-selling record. Mr. Orbison has sold more than 7 million albums since Nielsen SoundScan started tracking sales in 1991.
Mr. Fleckenstein said he expected the principal customers to be older, but added that he also hoped to pull younger fans through digital efforts. A YouTube channel for Mr. Orbison posts new material weekly, and has amassed a sizable following, with more than 114,000 subscribers—more than channels for the Beatles and Elvis Presley.
The Orbisons and the record labels are still evaluating whether to make the previously unreleased work available on music-streaming services like Spotify, said Mr. Fleckenstein.
Meanwhile, the Orbisons are beefing up the publishing house founded in the 1990s by their mother, Barbara, who over the years built up a stable of songwriters who wanted Mr. Orbison to record their compositions.
The Nashville-based company, called Still Working Music, recently hired five songwriters and a “song plugger” to shop their work to country, rock and pop stars. “All of this comes with the death of my mother, so we’re trying to make lemonade,” said Alex Orbison.
Write to Hannah Karp at [email protected]