Music to Spend By

By Charlotte Bruce Harvey '78 / March / April 2002
July 1st, 2007

They're everywhere. While waiting in line at Pottery Barn, the Gap, Eddie Bauer, or Restoration Hardware, swaying to Tito Puente and checking out the stack of compilation CDs by the register, you are fast in the clutches of former Brown musicians Billy Straus and Jeff Daniel. Their company, Rock River Communications, has pioneered what the marketing world calls "branded" CDs.

Now ubiquitous, branded CDs are the "house" music compilations sold at retailers ranging from Eddie Bauer to Victoria's Secret. Some chains - Starbucks, for instance - create their own CDs in-house, but most hire out. Which often means Rock River, since the tiny (eight employees as of February) company virtually invented the field and continues to dominate it.

A far cry from the nostalgia collections hawked on late-night television, Rock River compilations have the feel of a party-mix tape made by a particularly obsessive and wildly creative friend. And they're as sophisticated as the companies they represent. Surfari, created for the trendy men's clothing chain

Structure, juxtaposes instrumental surfing songs from the early 1960s with the jaded-sounding 1993 song "Couch Surfer" by Bran Van 3000. If you play the CD on your computer, you get visuals.

From a corporate vantage point, these innocuous-looking compilations are about much more than music; they're an "affinity branding" tool. Are you a Pottery Barn kind of couple? Plug in a little Nouveau Lounge while you break in that new leather couch. A Neiman Marcus wanna-be? La Musique has a chic French accent, and Kurt Elling's hip rendition of "April in Paris" gives it a dissonant edge - Comme des Garons, anyone? Wish you were driving a Passat? Volkswagen's Street Mix lets you own the tunes that had your head bobbing along with the wiper blades when the auto- maker's ads played on television.

When Straus founded Rock River in 1995, he'd spent sixteen years in the music business - performing, recording, writing, and producing for radio, television, and movies. Some projects were huge successes - he was an assistant engineer for Bruce Springsteen's anthem Born in the USA, for instance. But one of Straus's personal favorites, a compilation called Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, sold 100,000 copies and then vanished along with the sublabel that had issued it. The CD, a spin-off from the PBS Kids' geography show, mixed songs by the show's house band, Rockapella, with those of other artists representing different geographic regions. (It was, incidentally, also a collaboration with three other alumni: lyricist David Yazbek '82, who wrote the theme song's lyrics, and Rockapella members Sean Altman '83 and Elliot Kerman '81.) Still, says Straus, "The mainstream record business didn't get it." Frustrated, he began musing about new venues for selling music.

In time that frustration found him calling executives at the Gap and Pottery Barn, trying to persuade them to enter the music business. "Here I was in my apartment in New York, with a baby screaming in the background. I was hiding in the bathroom and trying to make it sound like we were a legitimate company," Straus recalls. "Some executive would say, ԂBut we sell couches - not music.' And I'd say, ԅExactly.' " Eventually a Pottery Barn buyer saw the potential, and with A Cool Christmas (since reissued as A Cool Christmas, Volume One), Rock River was born.

The Gap signed on, too, and Straus hired consultant Jeff Daniel, who had a background not only in rock 'n' roll but in music licensing, as a partner. Daniel also brought a younger music sensibility, says Straus, and a feel for techno and European bands. Based in San Francisco, where many Rock River clients are based, Daniel is general manager, and Straus, who now lives in Putney, Vermont, is the company's president. "We're a little unconventional," admits Straus. "In fact, Jeff and I have never spent an entire day in each other's company."

Since 1995, Rock River has made CDs for many of the top names in retail: mall staples like Banana Republic, Old Navy, Polo/Ralph Lauren, The Limited, and Lane Bryant, to name a few. W Hotels puts Rock River CDs in rooms, inviting guests to take them home - for a fee. So far the company has created seventy-five CDs (twelve Christmas collections last season alone). The company's 2001 revenues hit $7.5 million. They are projecting $10 million in 2002.

In 1999 Straus and Daniel entered the online market with Websound, which provides music for Web sites. Marlboro College was an equity investor and provided space - and a critical T1 line - and Daniel became CEO.

And last year Straus engineered another project with his old friend, Dave Yazbek: the cast album for the Broadway production of The Full Monty, which Yazbek and Straus coproduced with Ted Sperling and for which Yazbek was also composer and lyricist. In January the recording was nominated for a Grammy for best musical show album. "By the time the [BAM] comes out, we'll have lost," Straus predicted in early February.

Sadly, he predicted right.

Charlotte Bruce Harvey is the BAM's managing editor.
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March / April 2002