Rock's old dogs learn new tricks to stay on top. Their radio days may be behind them, but music's greatest generation is on a silver streak.
Credit: Bruce Springsteen Illustration by John Cuneo

For the music industry, Veterans Day came a few months early this year. Ever since the July release of 53-year-old Bruce Springsteen’s ”The Rising,” which has sold 1.5 million units and counting, ”Billboard”’s album chart has been home to more AARP-eligible artists than any time in recent memory. This month’s top 40 has boasted 55-year-old Carlos Santana, James Taylor, 54, Tom Petty, 52, Rod Stewart, 57, and Phil Collins, 51, as well as greatest-hits collections from the likes of the Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Elton John, and Fleetwood Mac. (In 2001, the only comparable releases were Pink Floyd’s best-of, ”Echoes,” and John’s ”Songs From the West Coast.”)

Of course, Bruce and his old buddies are just the sort of durable acts that labels and retailers have often relied on for sales salvation. ”You’re not looking at Grand Funk [Railroad] — these are real artists,” notes Warner Bros. Records creative director Jeff Ayeroff. The sudden boomer boom is a rare bright spot for an industry that projects revenues to drop nearly 13 percent this year. No wonder labels have renewed interest in the 30-and-over consumer (who accounted for 54.5 percent of music purchases last year, up from 42.7 percent in 1992): These shoppers are more likely to boost the bottom line. ”[They] don’t download albums at home,” explains Roy Trakin, senior editor at the industry-trade magazine ”Hits.” ”These are traditional buyers who will go to a store and buy a full album.”

But only if they know about a new release — and that’s no longer a simple proposition. ”These [veteran] artists don’t have a sure home at radio formats,” explains Larry Jenkins, senior VP of marketing and media for Taylor’s label, Columbia Records. As for video channels like MTV, the only ”JT” you’ll find there is Justin Timberlake. So labels and artists are taking a page from 2000’s smartly promoted, 8 million-selling Beatles’ ”1” and employing a mass-market, TV-heavy approach in the hopes of reaching the widest audience possible.

For proof, check out Taylor’s long and winding promotional jaunt in support of ”October Road,” his first CD of new material in five years. First, the singer-songwriter made the now-standard rounds of talk shows, including ”Today,” ”Late Show With David Letterman,” and ”Last Call With Carson Daly.” Then he filmed a cross-generational commercial — broadcast on the likes of CNBC and the Food Network — in which he jams for some young fans. He even made a handful of rare in-store appearances. The result: an August release that’s likely to sell 1 million copies by year’s end, with plenty of chart stamina left. (By contrast, JT’s 1997 disc, ”Hourglass,” took more than a year to go platinum.)