Loss Leaders Revisited

In the early Sixties, no one would have mistaken Warner Bros. Records for anything other than a subsidiary of a Big Corporation trying to dip a toe into those confusing rock and roll waters. When the British began Invading, Warners' big signing was Petula Clark. (Sister label Reprise, a long way from its Rat Pack origins, managed to snag the Kinks.) The Warners roster was solid, but nothing you'd accuse of being hip.

But by the early Seventies, Warner Bros. and Reprise had become the unofficial arbiters of musical taste. The roster included acts ranging from the Association to Frank Zappa, a level of diversity unheard of in a middle-sized record company. (The Warner Communications juggernaut, later to be part of the Time Warner behemoth and ultimately absorbed by AOL, was still in its formative period: Atlantic had been acquired in the late Sixties, Elektra in 1970, but there was little synergy among the labels, which were still operated as separate companies, a situation which hasn't changed much today.) The happy state of affairs at Warner/Reprise was mostly due to the willingness of Mo Ostin and Joe Smith, heads of the labels, to sign acts they thought would make a difference; however, merely signing acts does not guarantee they'll get a hearing, and with Top 40 in decline and MTV still unimagined, it was necessary to do something more.

"Something more" appeared in a two-LP gatefold cover in the spring of 1969, and this is what the first page had to say:

What we have here, to be out front about it, are some of our favorite records by 23 of the artists currently recording for Warner Bros.-Seven Arts and Reprise Records. We have put this double album together not only for our own enjoyment — since it includes worthy singles that never made it commercially as well as tracks from current albums — but hopefully to win new friends for some very creative people.
The Sinatras, the Dean Martins, the Pet Clarks have their own songbooks. This one is for those of you who may never have heard of Van Morrison but remember "Brown Eyed Girl". Who are interested to know that Jethro Tull and The Pentangle are both outselling Sammy Davis, Jr. Who dig The Mothers of Invention and are wondering what Frank Zappa is up to now.

And so, with this modest manifesto, The 1969 Warner/Reprise Songbook opens. Wild Man Fischer, recorded live on the Sunset Strip, hawks "Songs for Sale", which segues nicely into "My Sunday Feeling", off Jethro Tull's This Was album. On the way to the last track — Miriam Makeba's version of Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" — you'll hear from everyone from the Beau Brummels to Randy Newman to the Fugs. Around an hour and a half of the finest Burbank had to offer, for the ridiculously low price of $2, by mail only from Warner Bros. And not even "plus shipping".

The Songbook was a success, and Warners followed it up with The 1969 Warner/Reprise Record Show, or Son of Songbook. From then on, there were at least two samplers a year from Burbank through the Seventies and into the early Eighties, until the series finally petered out. Early on, the liner notes, the sort of thing usually done to perfection at Warners by VP Stan Cornyn, were uncredited. Eventually, the job of compilation and annotation was turned over to eminent musicologist Barry Hansen, a.k.a. Dr. Demento, who presided over most of the Seventies releases. The albums were advertised on the inner sleeves of almost all Warner/Reprise albums, and some of the advertising material is rather demented in its own right. A sleeve from 1971, by which time there had been half a dozen officially-designated Loss Leaders, proclaimed the following:

These Warner/Reprise specials are full stereo, double albums in deluxe packaging. The double albums ($2 for two records) average about 28 selections, each of them is filled with the best of the artists' work, plus some extra collectors' items (like unreleased singles, even an Ice Capades commercial by our Van Dyke Parks).
You can't buy these albums in a store; they are available only by mail, for the ridiculously low price of $2 for the doubles, $1 for Zappéd, and $3 for the deluxe three-record set, Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies.
We can get away with that low price because these celebrated artists and this benevolent record company have agreed not to make a profit on this venture. We (and they) feel it's more important that these samples of musical joy be heard.
If you're as suspicious of big record companies as we feel you have every right to be, we avert your qualms with the following High Truths:
This is new stuff, NOT old tracks dredged out of our Dead Dogs files. If our Accounting Department were running the company, they'd charge you $9.96 for each double album. But they're not. Yet.
We are not 100 per cent benevolent. It's our fervent hope that you, Dear Consumer, will be encouraged to pick up more of what you hear on these special albums at regular retail prices.
That you haven't heard much of this material we hold obvious. Over 8000 new albums glut the market (and airwaves) each year. Some of our Best Stuff has to get overlooked. Or underheard. Underbought. Thus, we're trying to get right to you Phonograph Lovers, bypassing the middle man.
Each album is divinely packaged, having been designed at no little expense by our latently talented Art Department.

Warners kept on putting out Loss Leaders through the Seventies and into the early Eighties, despite rising costs — frills were eliminated along the way, and the last couple of albums went out the door at $3 for two discs. Did the Accounting Department finally start running the record company after all those years? Not really. What ultimately killed off the Loss Leaders, it apppears, was that what had been "alternative" in the Songbook days eventually became the musical mainstream itself, which left the series without much raison d'être. Warners' Stan Cornyn explained it to me this way:

"[I]t was an idea whose time had gone. James Taylor was on the cover of Time, the underground had risen, and if we'd been righteous, we'd be trying to re-introduce artists who'd been left in the dust, whose careers were overshadowed by the new guys with long hair and sideburns."

In other words, the Sinatras, the Dean Martins, the Pet Clarks. What goes around indeed comes around.

Still, I'd suggest, based simply on how much they got me to spend, the Loss Leaders must have been one of the most successful music-industry promotions of all time, and while I don't have the complete series on my shelf just yet, I do have a fairly detailed list of the discs I do have, along with updates from the field and cover art where available.

Praise be unto Jeff Tamarkin for mentioning this little screed in Where the Interaction Is in the April 1997 issue of Discoveries magazine.

Much of the information from the Loss Leaders list is mirrored with permission by Audiogalaxy's Power Pop group at http://home.clara.net/fil/rocksamplers/warner.htm.

Special thanks to Keith Hanlon, Larry Hooper, Peter and Darlene Morris, Terrence Michael Gabor, Tom Smith, Drew Shomer, and Mike Clarson, for contributions to the list beyond the call of duty, and to Stan Cornyn, who helped put it all into perspective.

Last update: 5 February 2007

Site Meter | The Loss Leaders in detail | Back to the Music Room | E-mail to Chaz

Copyright © 1997-2007 by Charles G. Hill
Logos, recordings and related materials copyright © by Warner Bros. Records Inc.
This page is not supported, authorized or approved by Warner Bros. Records Inc. or the Warner Music Group.