Mail-order CDs tap into the under-30 crowd

By Tony Scherman
June 28, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

”Hey! What do these songs have in common?” asks the earnest young dude on your TV screen. ”Give up? They’re all on Totally ’80s, the greatest hits of the decade when communism died and music video was born!” Split-second snippets of 10-year-old videos rush by, tokens of your recent past: A-Ha’s ”Take on Me,” the Bangles’ ”Walk Like an Egyptian.” While not exactly Clio material, the two-minute spot packs an undeniable punch.

The reissues boom isn’t confined to record stores. The music industry constantly comes up with new ways to mine the past, and there’s no better window on its efforts than the once-sleepy world of DRTV: direct-response television. Ten years ago, TV’s mail-order record biz was a late-night purgatory ruled by Slim Whitman, Patti Page, and other showbiz undead. Today, a new breed of mail-order pitchman has learned how to market nostalgia with a lot more pizzazz — if also with the same old hucksterish zeal.

Razor & Tie Music, packager of Totally ’80s, was founded in 1991 by two lawyers in love with rock & roll: Cliff Chenfeld, now 36, and Craig Balsam, 35. Ceding the easy-listening market to more staid mail-order outfits like Heartland Music, Razor & Tie went right after an audience untapped by TV merchandisers: those free-spending 30-and-unders. ”We wanted to send a clear message,” Chenfeld says. ”’Hey, we’re 30, we’re cool, this is irreverent, this is fun, and all you people out there who’ve never considered buying anything through TV, we’re here for you.”’ It’s nostalgia for the MTV generation.

As outfits like Razor & Tie, Heartland, and Time-Life Music hurl out more and more product, the pace of nostalgia quickens. Two years after issuing its ’91 debut album, Those Fabulous ’70s, Razor & Tie pressed on with Totally ’80s, packaging the decade as nostalgia only three years after it had ended. Chenfeld and Balsam have eaten their way through the ’70s and the ’80s right into the instant replay business. The recent Living in the ’90s memorializes the present. ”This stuff is coming around faster and faster. I don’t know what’s nostalgia anymore and what isn’t,” Balsam confesses.

If today’s hip young telemarketers leave the ’60s pretty much alone, it’s only partly because their audience’s memory is too short. You can’t easily turn Janis Joplin into Past Lite; Jimi Hendrix videos aren’t only dated looking but frighteningly real. ”The ’60s were raw, very heavy,” says Chenfeld. ”The ’70s seem to be a fault line — at least for our market. Elton John is fine; Sly Stone isn’t. Donna Summer, fine; Janis Joplin, not. You can’t do a ’60s package and say, ‘Hey, this is fun!’ The ’70s are media ready.”