For several years now, I’ve been a member of the Elvis Insiders, a fan organization operated by Elvis Presley Enterprises. Among the regular features of the Insiders e-mail newsletter and web site are profiles of members. I always read the profiles because it’s interesting to see how people came to be Elvis fans. From the start it seems that the Insider profiles have almost always been of fans who either were very young when Elvis died or weren’t even born by 1977. Most of them seem to have inherited their love for Elvis from their parents.
It’s rare to see an Insider profile of a member who actually saw Elvis in concert in the seventies, and I can’t remember even one profile of a fan dating back to the fifties or sixties. Part of the reason for the group emphasis on youth is that it operates online, and older Elvis fans are less likely to be into the Internet and e-mail than younger ones. Still, I’ve always been amazed and pleased that Elvis apparently has so many young fans. Lately, though, I’ve begun to have doubts about his power to attract new followers from the 20-something set.
• Cobain topped Elvis among dead celebrities
My reservations started mildly enough with an isolated fact here and there. First, there was Elvis being overtaken by Kurt Cobain for the top spot on Forbes magazine’s list of highest-earning dead celebrities. Then, a while back, Dan Webster, a local Spokane entertainment writer, reported that he had checked the music download site, mp3.com, and found that Presley ranked just 27th as the most popular artist of the day. “That placed him between the Beatles and Michael Jackson,” Webster noted, “and behind such contemporary artists as Rihanna, Eminem and Fergie and such older acts as the Backstreet Boys, AC/DC and Celine Dion.” That caused Webster to ask the question, “How relevant is Presley to the iPod generation?”
It’s an interesting question for long-time Elvis fans. It’s an absolutely crucial question, however, for Elvis Presley Enterprises, whose long-term financial health depends on attracting younger fans to replace the baby-boomer fans who will soon begin moving on to that great rock ’n’ roll dance party in the sky.
So what is EPE’s strategy for creating a younger fan base before it’s too late? That was the subject of Woody Baird’s Associated Press article in January 2007. “I can’t try to sell somebody Elvis who doesn’t know who he is,” explained Paul Jankowski, the first chief of marketing for EPE. “Our opportunity demographic is really going to be 12 to 24 (years old), with a sweet spot around the 18-to-24 area.”
• EPE focuses on young hipsters web sites
So how does Elvis reach the younger set? By establishing a presence on the web sites where they hang out, said Jankowski. “We will take our MySpace page and we will focus on expanding our number of friends on MySpace, that kind of thing,” he explained. “There’s all kinds of Elvis content on YouTube, things that we put up, things that fans put up. The Elvis archives offer a rich source of material for ‘digital tactics.’ You know, for cell phones or doing wallpaper or doing podcasts.”
Such a digital gimmick-and-gadget approach might bring EPE moderate financial returns in the short run, but surely it won’t produce the life-long Elvis fans the company needs in the long haul. Oh, EPE might be able to entice some young people to purchase some of its licensed products with a youthful flair, such as Hershey’s peanut butter and banana cream candy bar with a picture of the King on the wrapper or the PEZ set with three different vintage Elvis dispensers heads (1958, 1968, 1973). Of course, at $50,000 each hardly any Presley fan, young or old, is going to purchase one of the 30 custom-made motorcycles Harley-Davidson is producing under an EPE license. But the bike promotion is just part of enhancing Elvis’ “cool factor” in appealing to the young hipsters, according to Jankowski.
• Face it—Presley fan numbers will decline
The problem with EPE’s approach is that it supposes bombarding young people with Elvis images will make them fans. It won’t. What will is making Elvis relevant in the lives of young people today. The 20-something crowd already knows who Elvis was, but that doesn’t make them fans. Listen to how 25-year-old Chris Kornelius, Web editor for the Seattle Weekly newspaper, assessed Presley’s importance to his generation. Kornelius admited that if he hears Presley “in a movie or on a soundtrack, you know, I enjoy it. But I don’t think I’ve ever owned an Elvis record. I don’t have Elvis on my iPod.” And, perhaps most revealing, he says, “I’ve never had a conversation about Elvis with anyone my age.”
It may be difficult for current Elvis fans to accept, but the unpleasant truth is that recruiting Presley fans from among today’s youth is a lost cause. Every generation asserts its independence by defining its own music and entertainment idols. When I was young, there was no way I would have accepted Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, or even Frank Sinatra as a musical favorite. They were too tied to the past. Why, then, should we expect young people today to feel a connection with an entertainer who died over 30 years ago?
The best chance EPE has of earning new Elvis fans and retaining them through the years is to selectively and creatively market Elvis’ music. (Forget about portraying him as a movie star.) In recent years, a few projects featuring Presley tunes have been effective in keeping his name before the public. The 2002 Disney animated feature Lilo and Stitch introduced thousands of youngsters to Presley’s music. Some Elvis fans have criticized the recent retooling of a few Elvis tunes for modern audiences. However, if updating the sound of his music, as was done with “A Little Less Conversation,” “Rubberneckin’,” and, most recently, “Baby, Let’s Play House,” earns Elvis some recognition from the 20-somethings, I’m all for it.
• Presley’s voice returns to the big screen
Also, the use of Presley tunes in profitable motion pictures helps give his music a contemporary jolt. The latest example is the use of Elvis’ “Hound Dog” over the opening credits of the latest Indiana Jones movie. The musical All Shook Up was a great concept for presenting Elvis’ music to a new, wider audience, but unfortunately the production was flawed and closed on Broadway after just six months.
If EPE wants to extend the Presley fan base into today’s teen and young adult market, it should focus on placing Elvis’ music within entertainment concepts that appeal to young people. Doing so won’t stop the inevitable decline in the number of Elvis fans over the coming years, but it will slow it down. | © Alan Hanson (July 2008)