When Marc Cohn accepted the Best New Artist Grammy last month, he didn’t thank God — but he did thank the promotion department at his label, Atlantic Records. ”They did an unbelievable job,” says singer-songwriter Cohn, whose single ”Walking in Memphis,” off his low-key album, Marc Cohn, reached No. 13 on the charts last year. ”If you don’t get played on radio, you hope for a cult following at best.” The album shot up from No. 78 to No. 38 after Cohn’s win.
Cohn’s victory over flashier groups like Boyz II Men and C+C Music Factory, both of which sold many more records, was an industry anomaly. But the greater surprise was that ”Memphis,” a haunting acoustic song, got airtime at all. ”There was nothing obvious about my record,” admits Cleveland-born Cohn, 32. ”It could definitely have fallen between the cracks. That was my greatest worry.”
But Atlantic’s cochairman and co-CEO, Doug Morris, a former songwriter, took a personal interest — and Morris’ mandate made Cohn’s record a company priority. His commitment went so far that when the Grammy producers declined to let Cohn perform on the show, Atlantic — in a move that raised industry eyebrows — boycotted not just the awards, but the flashy parties afterward.
”I think Marc touched an emotional chord in me,” says Morris. ”He’s a throwback to artists like Billy Joel or Paul Simon. The album went against the grain of what was happening in the musical world at the moment…and it really required a constant pressure. It was a question of getting people to really listen to the music.”
That was an uphill battle. Though ”Memphis” debuted on the charts in March, it didn’t peak until July. ”We didn’t go in blaring and hyping,” says Danny Buch, Atlantic’s VP of album promotion, ”we wanted to create a buzz.”
Buch first approached ”adult-listener” stations in smaller markets where program directors would be willing to take a chance on Cohn’s nostalgic sound. Call-in response was so strong that Buch used those numbers in a radio-trade ad campaign (patterned on ads for the United Negro College Fund): ”Adult Listeners are a Terrible Thing to Waste.”
Next, Morris himself called stations around the country, urging them to take a chance on Cohn’s brand of soulful rock. The persistence paid off: When Cohn gave a five-minute live performance on the wildly popular ”Mark and Brian” show on Los Angeles rock station KLOS, his hosts asked him to play for the next hour and a half.
”Once people hear this artist, they recognize he’s something special,” says Morris. But the artist himself is a little more pragmatic. ”I get stopped on the street by people saying, ‘I love your song,”’ says Cohn, who’s opening for Bonnie Raitt in Australia. ”Not ‘I love your album,’ or ‘I love your music.’ People know ‘Walking in Memphis’ because it got played on the radio.”