Same Old Brand-New

Blame Rock River Communications -- and hipster Jeff Daniel -- for those cheesy store-branded music compilations

Jeff Daniel's office has all the trappings of a home-grown music label or independent college radio station. Thousands of CDs line the walls, interspersed with concert posters and rock 'n' roll memorabilia, while a cushy, multicolored couch beckons nearby. For his part, Daniel fits the prototypical image of the indie-music aficionado, with his goatee, silver hoop earrings, and laid-back work attire of a worn hooded sweat shirt and cargo pants. On the back of his hand he sports a stamp from a show at Bimbo's the night before.

Then Daniel reveals the awful truth. "Basically," he says, "I have fully sold out."

He hands over a stack of CDs issued by Rock River Communications, the company for which he serves as general manager. The albums have titles like Margarita Mix and Tiki Rhythms and Salty and Oh-So-Summer, names that sound as blandly commercial as Pottery Barn's Americana Party Bucket or J. Crew's Preppy Stripe Polo. Like a mirror image of those late-night commercials advertising compilations "not sold in stores," these CDs are sold onlyin stores -- that is, Restoration Hardware, Banana Republic, Old Navy, and Lane Bryant, their company names prominently displayed on the album covers.

"People are in the store, and they like the lifestyle of being in a Pottery Barn, however weird that may sound," Daniel explains, his boyish voice slipping into a more businesslike tone. "They like to walk around in there with the stuff that's two grand, but they end up walking out with a candle and, like, a napkin. But for 15 bucks, sitting on the counter, is music. It's an easy way for them to take the ambience home."

It's not Pottery Barn compiling the music -- it's Daniel and Rock River, which bills itself as "the premier provider of branded media solutions." For those who don't speak corporate, that means the company produces prefabricated soundtracks that complete the lifestyle package for chain-store devotees. Although the 33-year-old Daniel hardly looks plucked from the pages of an Eddie Bauer catalog, it's his job to predict which tunes will sound perfect beneath Eddie Bauer's patio Sunbrella (that would be Eddie Bauer's Tropical Nights, which contains such hula-rific hits as Blood, Sweat & Tears' "You've Made Me So Very Happy" and the Isley Brothers' "Summer Breeze"). Rock River is bedside at the increasingly cozy marital union of music and marketing -- and Daniel's supplying the lube.

Rock River isn't a large company, although it raked in over $8 million in wholesale revenue last year. Founded in New York in 1995 by current CEO Billy Straus, the business has just nine employees, split between an East Coast and a West Coast office. Even with such a small work force, Rock River has issued nearly 90 compilations for 25 different clients in the past seven years. This spring alone, Daniel and his staff will compile 15 end-of-the-year holiday CDs.

A firm like Rock River needs someone who knows a lot about music, and Daniel's background as both a musician and a record-industry insider ensures he's not clueless. After graduating in 1991 with a degree in business administration from Brown University in Providence, R.I., Daniel scored a job reissuing material from EMI's back catalog; at the same time, his band, Action Figures, nabbed an East Village rehearsal space down the hall from Sonic Youth, the Beastie Boys, and Helmet. (Daniel's framed Alice in Chains and Ozzy Osbourne photos betray his metalhead past, although he says he listens to lots of emo and trip hop nowadays.)

From there Daniel moved to Entertainment Weekly magazine, where he learned the ropes of music licensing while producing compilation CDs as incentives for customers to buy subscriptions. Just about anyone who watches late-night television knows Daniel's work: He was responsible for tepid infomercial offerings like Hot Dance Mix and Pure Party, which prompted many a TV viewer to ask, "Who buys those things?"

In 1997 Daniel began consulting for Rock River, and as the company got off the ground, he found himself transforming from rock 'n' roll ideologue to corporate sellout. While he once passed the Beastie Boys in the halls with the awe-struck admiration of a fan, he soon began wondering if the musicians would consider licensing any of their songs to him.

"At some point, it gets less interesting to live out of a van while playing gigs at Phinneas T. Flubberbuster's or wherever," Daniel says. "I love playing music, but I have friends who have had major label deals, and where are they now? They're waiters or they're selling dope, because they all got dropped."

One way Daniel justifies his career switch is by insisting that choosing tracks for J. Crew's Getaway album satisfies his artistic urges. "This is a great creative outlet musically," he says, "to be able to choose what music all these people across the country are listening to and to expose them to stuff they wouldn't otherwise hear."

When a client comes to Rock River requesting a compilation, Daniel and his two-person San Francisco staff make what they call a "pitch CD" -- downloading MP3s, drawing from the albums lining the walls, and burning the mix on a Macintosh G4. If the client likes the proposal, Rock River tries to get permission from the acts and labels.

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