How to make it in the Music Business

the K-Tel Way

Since the earliest days of the record business, the formula for making a mint has been the same. In the traditional model you get some young, talented but ultimately naive artists who look good on album covers, find them the right song and producer, and hope that it sells.

It requires a good ear to find the voice and song, and a cold, cold heart. If it does sell, you either try to immediately replicate it or sell the group to a bigger fish in the show biz pond. K-Tel records,
the most successful label in Canadian history, did things their own way. They didn’t follow the rules because K-Tel didn’t care about the music: they were all about the business.

K-Tel was started in Winnipeg in 1975 by Phil Kives, a brilliant entrepreneur and consummate hustler who was always looking for the next big money maker. He started his multi-million dollar
business by travelling from town to town selling teflon frying pans, Veg-O-Matics, and other kitchen gadgets. He started bringing in serious bank when he began shilling his products on TV, inventing the infomercial in the process.

In 1966, recognizing that there was a huge market for country and western music, he decided to press some records and have them sold by mail order. The first compilation sold out its entire run. His next comp, 25 Polka Hits, sold over a million copies in the US alone.  Another fine K-tel product Kives had struck upon a genius idea: he didn’t have to seek out musicians or try to find hit songs; instead, he would just license a

bunch of songs that people already knew and mash them together on the same record. These weren’t the traditional label comps intended to promote upcoming artists. Instead they were filled with established names and guaranteed party rockers. Record labels and artists past their prime were happy to sell the rights to their old catalogues,thinking there wasn’t much money to be made from repackaging songs no longer on the charts. K-Tel knew better. Phil Kives made millions by doing things his own way.

Here are some of the secrets of his success...

Squeeze On A Couple More

The usual 12-inch, 33rpm record carries about 23 minutes of music per side. That meant that most radio friendly artists with songs coming in around 3 minutes could fit 6-7 songs per side. With jazz, classical, or prog rock records there could often be just one track per side. K-Tel became famous for how much they were able to jam onto a single album.

Most of their compilations in the 60s and 70s had somewhere between 20 and 24 songs per record! They did this through a number of dubious methods, including cutting records with thinner grooves and even altering songs (more about that in a minute). The thinner grooves and cheap recycled vinyl they used meant that K-Tel comps were more easily scratched and had a much lower sound quality than other records. They could get about a half an hour per side but gave up a lot in terms of dynamics and clarity.

Just Chop ‘Em Up

If you need to get 12 songs into 30 minutes you’re gonna need them to come in around 2:30 each. Of course not all songs are going to be the same length, and most of them are going to come in at more than 3 minutes. So how do you get 24 of them onto a Super Hits comp? First, you recut them to fit. Many songs were savagely edited to a standard 2:30 by cutting out whole verses,essentially just leaving hooks and choruses. Another method,especially useful for instrumental and disco tracks, was to crank up the pitch. This sped up the track but added a weird
“chipmunks” effect to vocals and melodies.

Remake, Recycle, Reuse

In the early days of K-Tel big record labels didn’t know how to market their older material and happily sold distribution rights to Kives. Once K-Tel owned the rights to a song, or a whole catalogue of songs, they could do whatever they wanted with them. The compilations could be endlessly re-cut and rearranged with the few bigger hits being used on dozens of different records. They could in-turn license songs for use in TV shows and movies. If K-tel couldn’t get the rights to an original song, they would sometimes hire an artist, like Little Richard, to go into the studio and re-record his own material, then buy the new version at a lower rate and put out a greatest hits collection.

K-Tel found another, more irritating way to reuse other people’s music when they came out with the Mini-Pops series in the mid 1980s, reselling current pop hits as sung by obnoxious kids.Possibly K-Tel’s greatest success came from the Hooked On Classics series, which paired public domain classical music with recycled disco drum tracks. Those cheesy mash-ups eventually sold more than 10 million copies.

K-Tel is still bringing in money. The company owns the distribution rights to thousands of songs, including things like Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” and “Tutti Frutti” by Little Richard. K-Tel gave up on selling crummy sounding comps a long time ago and now make most of its profits licensing music for use in commercials, TV shows, and movies. Phil Kives might be gone, but even after all these years the K-Tel cash-o-matic is still cranking out gold.