The mid-Nineties were a boom time for promotional CD compilations. Unholy alliances between record labels and other commercial concerns were nothing new, but they did attain a distinctly plaintive quality during the generational marketing shift of the Alt-splosion Era.
From the labels’ standpoint, these deals meant some easy licensing revenue and a passing chance at broader promotion in an increasingly crowded field of acts. For the corporations who flogged these slivers of forgettable plastic, they were a way to establish “cred” in a realm where in-your-face hipness had become a crucial component of youth marketing.
A couple of these releases still reside in my collection, the most memorable being the “Ready Mix” released by clothes retailer Express to promote its then-new line of retro-themed fashion wear. The conceit behind it was mildly clever as far as these things went, featuring covers of older songs by contemporary alt-rock bands. Maura picked it up for me after noticing it included Belly’s take on “It’s Not Unusual,” and it got a decent amount of play — mainly because it was one of the few CDs I owned that could be used in the disc-swapping “custom soundtrack” trick for the PSOne Vigilante 8 game.
I did not, however, own a copy of The Rainbow Sessions: Volume 1, the product of a partnership between Atlantic Records and Skittles candy.
Not really sure why the purveyor of citrus-powered sugar bombs felt the need to shore up its indie credentials, but that’s why I’m forlornly picking through yesterday’s trash and not nursing an ulcer in a Madison Ave corner office.
The fundamental problem faced by these promo comps was the need to balance the performatively transgressive vibe of the moment with the offense-adverse conservatism of corporate branding. Acts like Babes in Toyland or the Butthole Surfers were too strange a bedfellow for nervous suits who weren’t crazy about the whole idea to start. I can only imagine a winnowing back-and-forth between the parties involved until they finally settled on a “cool, but not too cool” consensus worthy of a soul-patch rocking youth minister.
Pretty sure every artist on the comp was played on the soft rock station at the barbershop when I got my hair cut last Monday. That’s pretty amazing, considering I only there for only twenty minutes.